Summary: A short story for all my Robert Fuller Fandom buddies with love & thanks.
Word Count: 5866
All was hustle and bustle at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station as the preparations for Christmas reached their climax. Mrs. Daisy Cooper was in the kitchen cooking up a storm, the aroma of herbs and spices mingling with that of the huge turkey, now cooking in a slow oven.
“Daisy will you sit a spell, take a rest,” said Jess Harper the dark haired young partner in the Sherman Ranch, “You’re making me tired just watchin’ you!”
“Oh you,” she chuckled. “A woman’s work is never done, you know that, my dear, especially not on Christmas Eve. Goodness, I’ve you, Slim and young Mike to feed tomorrow, not to mention all our guests!”
“Yeah, well, Slim agrees with me,” Jess said, referring to his best buddy and business partner, Slim Sherman. “You need a break.” Then gently taking her by the elbow, he escorted her from the kitchen, leading her to her fireside chair. “Now sit…and stay there for five minutes at least,” he said firmly.
She chuckled at that. “You sound like you’re addressing Mike’s dog Buttons. Oh, he hasn’t taken him to bed with him again, has he?” she added wearily.
Slim strode over to the fireside bearing a small glass of sherry which he handed to his much loved, elderly housekeeper. “Here, you are, Daisy. Now just relax with a drink for a little while, huh. And no; Buttons is in the barn where he should be. I told Mike Santa wouldn’t appreciate being barked at and that did the trick!”
Their young ward — the blond haired bundle of energy that was Mike Williams — had been bursting with excitement all day long, as every youngster in the country doubtless was at this special time, Slim reflected. Well, and why not? Christmas was a real special time, and judging by the twinkle in his pard’s deep blue eyes, he was feeling a tad keyed up himself.
“So with Millie and her Ma, my Lily and Mort, that makes eight at table tomorrow,” said Slim, counting them off on his fingers.”
Jess gave him a broad grin. “Gee, I sure am glad Millie’s Ma can make it this year,” he said happily.
“Well, that’s nice, dear,” said Daisy throwing him her warm smile. “It isn’t every young man that relishes the company of his mother-in-law.”
Jess turned pale at that. “Hey, hang on there, Daisy. We ain’t wed yet. Just got us an understanding. These things take a lotta planning, you know; can’t be rushed into any…” he muttered, looking troubled.
Daisy exchanged a wink with Slim. “Of course, dear. What am I thinking? Prospective mother-in-law I should have said.”
“Just a matter of time,” whispered Slim, with an evil smile at his buddy, and received a brisk clip to the head for his trouble.
“Now, now, you two; no roughhousing in here or you’ll wake Mike up. Go on — off with you. Weren’t you going to go out to check the stock half an hour ago?”
“Sure,” said Slim, pulling himself up from his seat by the fire. “Come on, Hotshot, let’s go check the beasts and sit a spell on the porch. Get out of Daisy’s hair,” he said nodding to Jess, who was lounging against the mantelpiece.
Once they had departed, Daisy drained her sherry, smiling to herself.
“Check the stock. Of course you are,” she whispered to herself, knowing full well that they were off to the barn for a nip of moonshine they thought she knew nothing about. Chuckling to herself, she went back to the kitchen to address herself to the knotty problem of how much cranberry sauce eight healthy folk could reasonably eat.
Snug in his bed, Mike sat up and peered down to the bottom where his stocking hung in readiness for Santa’s visit. Yep, it was still there…and empty as yet, but there again, Slim had definitely said the Big Man wouldn’t visit until he was sound asleep.
It was hard — real hard — for a youngster to sleep on Christmas Eve, though, he reflected as he listened to the gentle ebb and flow of conversation coming from the parlor.
Then, a while later, the front door banged. He leapt out of bed, and pulling the drapes back, looked out of the window. He was just able to make out Slim and Jess, by the light of a huge moon, wandering over to the barn, checking on the horses before turning in, he guessed.
It was sometime later that Mike decided he just couldn’t sleep, his thoughts having turned to previous Christmas’s before he’d landed at the Relay. The more he thought about his Ma and Pa, the more upset and restless he became. After a while, he slipped out of bed, and pulling on his boots and a warm robe over his nightshirt, he cautiously tiptoed to the door and pulled it open a crack.
Mike could hear Aunt Daisy humming to herself as she worked in the kitchen. Very quietly, he slipped out of his room, scooted silently across the parlor, and opening the front door very softly, disappeared outside, closing the door gently behind him.
The yard was bathed in moonlight and was surprisingly mild for the time of year. Pulling the belt of his robe more tightly around him, Mike sped quickly across to the barn.
The door creaked a little as he pulled it open.
Jess and Slim were standing by one of the stalls, Jess checking on Snow Bird, his prize quarter horse who was due to foal shortly. They spun around at the sound. Jess’s hand had automatically gone for his gun, but he holstered it quickly when he saw who the intruder was and marched across to meet him.
“What the heck are you doin’ out of bed, Mike? You should have been asleep long since,” Jess said firmly. Then something in the child’s somewhat hangdog demeanor made him soften his approach some. “So what’s up, buddy? Couldn’t sleep?” he asked, gently ruffling his blond hair.
“Nope. Got to thinking,” Mike whispered.
Slim and Jess exchanged a concerned glance; Jess slumped down on a straw bale, pulling the child down next to him as Slim looked on. “Hey Tiger, so what’s all this about?”
“It’s Ma and Pa,” Mike finally managed. “I know what you said after they were killed, as to how to how they were watchin’ over me from Heaven, but…”
“But what, Mike?” asked Slim encouragingly.
“Well, what if they see me havin’ a real good time without them? Won’t they feel bad…like I don’t care about them no more?”
Slim nearly said ‘anymore, not no more’ but bit it back, knowing this probably wasn’t the right time for a lesson in grammar.
It was Jess who had the matter in hand anyway.
His buddy always seemed to know exactly what to say at these difficult times with their young orphaned ward, Slim reflected. He figured that it was maybe because Jess had survived without parents from quite a young age too, and therefore could understand the boy’s feelings better than most.
Now his pard had a reassuring arm around the boy’s bowed shoulders. “So tell me, Mike, did your Ma and Pa love you?”
The child’s head shot up at that. “Well, sure, of course they did!”
“Well then, don’t you think they’d want you to be happy and enjoy yourself rather than spend the day moping and missing them?”
Mike’s frown cleared at that. “Well…I guess they’d want me to be happy, yeah,” he replied. Finally a look of relief spread across his young face.
“There you go then,” said Jess, beaming down at him. Then he sobered. “And don’t you ever forget, boy — they’ll always be right here,” he said gently tapping the boy’s chest. “They’re safe in your heart, huh?”
“Yep,” said the boy looking happy again. “I know that, Jess…thanks.”
“Yeah, well, OK, so back to bed then, Tiger,” said Jess, giving him a gentle punch on the arm.
“What?” asked Jess, showing the infinite patience he saved for Mike alone.
The youngster turned sparkling eyes on Slim. “Well, you know that story you told me tonight, Slim, the one your grandpappy told you about how all the animals in the barn kneel down and worship the baby Jesus? Well, I’d sure like to see them!”
Jess’s eyes twinkled. “Yeah, Slim, I’d sure like to see that too,” he grinned.
Slim looked slightly uncertain for a moment before rallying bravely. “I’m sure you would, young man, but that doesn’t happen until after midnight and you’ll be fast asleep by then, won’t you?” he said with a firm look at Mike and ignoring Jess.
Mike knew when not to push his luck. “I guess I will, Slim. Night. Night, Jess.” After giving them both a hug, he ran off across the yard, looking much more his usual chirpy self.
“So about these beasts kneeling for baby Jesus….?” said Jess a grin on his face.
“Aw, come on, pard. It’s a well known fact,” Slim replied, looking a mite sheepish. “So, do you want some of this hill whiskey or what?”
They repaired to the porch a while later and Slim went off to check on Mike.
“Is he OK?” asked Jess, passing a glass of whiskey across when his buddy returned some time later.
“Yeah, fast asleep,” said Slim, slumping down on a battered porch chair next to Jess, who had already gotten stuck into the whiskey and had his feet up on the hitching rail, looking relaxed.
Jess nodded. “Can’t be easy for the little guy, losing his folks that way,” he said, referring to the fact that all on the wagon train Mike had been travelling with had been slain by hostiles, including his beloved parents, just a few years back.
“Nope,” Slim agreed, looking thoughtful.
Then Jess chuckled. “He sure led us a pretty dance today, though, didn’t he?” They both grinned at the memory of Mike’s increasing excitement as the day had progressed.
“So, was Andy like that when he was little?” asked Jess, smiling at his pard and referring to Slim’s kid brother, now back east at college.
“Oh yeah,” laughed Slim. “Worse. Drove us all crazy come Christmas Eve. Used to drive me mad as he was the baby and got away with murder!”
“Go on,” said Jess with his cheeky grin.
“Oh, one time, he ate all the candy from the tree before breakfast — well, before first light — and was sick as a dog! Then there was the time he wanted this hunting rifle, which was way too old for him. He was just a tiny kid and Pa bought me a rifle — me being so much older. Well, his face come Christmas morning, it would have turned the milk sour,” Slim chuckled. Then he sobered. “Gee, I sure miss him.”
Jess threw him an understanding look. “I know, pard; it’s a real shame he can’t make it home this year.”
“Uh, well, can’t be helped.” Slim shrugged, sipping his drink as he looked out to the moonlit hills on the horizon. After a while he turned back to Jess. “So how about you? Were your brothers and sisters a nightmare come Christmas?”
Jess’s face took on that familiar closed look, and after a moment, he said gruffly, “What Christmas?”
Slim remembered just too late what a hard childhood his buddy had endured, living in poverty on the Texas panhandle, with ‘nuthin’ to their name and not much chance of getting ‘anythin’, as he had once said to Slim.
“Gee, I’m sorry, pard; that was real crass of me. I shouldn’t have said anything; I wasn’t thinking,” said Slim immediately.
Jess sighed deeply and took a sip of his drink before turning to face his buddy, a look of profound sadness in his deep blue eyes. “It’s OK,” he said eventually. “It was all a long time ago.”
Sure he said that to Slim, to make him feel better, but in reality, it could have been just yesterday, those days on the panhandle, with his drunken father, always ready to lash out at his offspring, and his poor downtrodden mother made old before her time after years of childbearing. Five young‘uns surviving and three in their graves, she spent her days scrimping and saving to make ends meet.
Jess gave a grim smile as he remembered how she had tried to make the day special. Once his Pa had disappeared off to the saloon for the day, she would bring out the gifts she had hidden. Usually these consisted of practical things she had made herself — a new shirt or carefully knitted warm socks or scarf, all made from re-knitted hand-me-downs, but made with love, he remembered now with a lump in his throat. Hell, those simple gifts had meant more to him than any of the fancy store-bought presents folks swapped now a days.
Jess thought back again to those long ago days, and then he started to remember the good times — the times his Pa had promised to give up the drink for good and they’d go off together fishin’ or huntin’. Pa sayin’ Jess was his right-hand man and how he couldn’t manage without his son. And then the next week, he’d be back in the saloon, and this drunken stranger would be banging into the house, demanding his supper and lashing out at any of his kids who were stupid enough to get within range.
Jess sighed lustily.
“What?” asked Slim suddenly alert.
“I was just remembering one Christmas that wasn’t so bad when I was a kid.”
“Pa was off the drink for once and it was just after my little sister had been born.” Jess turned sparkling eyes on his buddy. “Gee, she was the cutest little thing you ever saw, pard — these big brown eyes and masses of curly black hair. Was born that way; Ma said it was all that hair as gave her heartburn when she was expectin’,” he said with a laugh.
“Anyway, it was one of those times Pa said he was turning over a new leaf, was gonna quit the drink; lasted all of a week,” Jess said bitterly. “But I guess it was great while it did last,” he continued.
“Me and Pa went and shot a wild turkey; even dug up a tree and decorated the place. Looked real good,” Jess said, remembering the unaccustomed bright paper decorations in the small run-down little hovel they called home. The new baby in her crib set beneath the tree staring up at the bright green branches in wonderment, waving her tiny fists in delight.
“Didn’t have no presents or anything,” Jess said. “But a real good meal and then we all sang and danced and Pa played the fiddle — he were a real good fiddler…when he was sober, that is,” he finished with a sigh.
Slim listened to this and then threw his buddy a concerned glance, knowing how the young family had perished just a few years later, when their place was fired by the Bannister gang. Jess and two other siblings had escaped and then gone through the horror of seeing their kin burn to death before their very eyes.
“You still miss them?” he asked softly.
Jess took another sip of his drink, his eyes never leaving the horizon. “More than you’ll ever know,” he whispered.
After a while, Slim said quietly. “Me too — my folks, that is. Christmas was kinda different after their passing, with just me, Andy and old Jonsey riding shotgun over us.”
Jess looked over at that. “Gee, old Jonsey. He sure was a character, wasn’t he,” he said, referring to an old Sherman family friend who had moved in to help the young brothers out after their folk had passed over. “Remember that darned liniment he used to insist on puttin’ on anything from your chest if you had a cold to a horse’s leg with a pulled muscle!”
“Don’t I just — that stink. You’d get cured real quick just to stop him slathering it all over you,” Slim chuckled.
“And the way he was with the horses. Could get himself throwed practically afore he was in the saddle!” Jess continued.
Slim shook his head laughing. “He sure was a good cook, though; can’t deny that, Jess.”
“Oh sure, sure. Served up a pretty good Christmas dinner, too, if I remember. I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven that first Christmas after I landed here. Would never tell him that, though,” Jess said with a sly wink.
“Oh, he’d have had some stinging come back if you had,” said Slim, his eyes twinkling in merriment. “Sure could be a sour old cuss.”
“Well, I reckon he had plenty to be sour about, way me and Andy used to run him ragged,” said Jess honestly. “Not to mention that sacroiliac of his.”
“Oh please…don’t mention his darned sacroiliac,” said Slim with feeling.
“So how is it — his bad back, that is?” asked Jess, ignoring the plea. “Did he say last time he wrote?”
“Fair to middling, I think he said,” Slim replied. “Whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
Jess just shook his head chuckling. “Awkward ol’ son of a… Sure miss him, though.”
They sat on sipping their drinks and remembering the happy times when Andy was but a youngster and old Jonsey fussed and fretted over them all, almost as much as Daisy did now.
After a while Slim turned back to his pard and threw him an enquiring glance. “So what was Christmas like before you landed here? When you were on the drift?”
Jess’s whole demeanor changed; he stiffened and his eyes became cold and unreadable. “Oh, you know, I made the best of things.”
Slim was silent for a moment and then said softly, “Come on, Jess, tell me. We’re through with all this secrecy about your past, aren’t we? Thought you trusted me now, pard.”
Jess sighed deeply before turning to face his buddy. “I do, Slim, you know I do. It’s just…well, some things are best left in the past where they belong, you know?”
Slim said nothing, merely nodded and the silence grew longer and longer.
Jess rolled his eyes and finally grinned over at his buddy. ”OK, OK, you win. So, at Christmas — well, all winter really, I guess — I tried to find work, some place I could hang my hat and call home for a while. It gets a might tiresome on the trail in bad weather, gettin’ half froze to death or else soaked and no place to dry off.”
“I can imagine. So these places you found work, did they celebrate Christmas? Did you have a good time?”
Jess looked off to the hills again. “If you can call getting fallin’ down drunk a good time, then, yep, I guess they celebrated some.”
“No Christmas dinner then?”
“Are you kiddin’? If there was one in the offing, it would be just for the family that owned the ranch. Us hired hands would have to make do as well as we could in the bunkhouse. But…”
“Go on, pard.”
“I was gonna say that was better than bein’ out on the drift, all alone.”
“And were you ever…you know, alone on Christmas?”
Jess nodded. “A few times. Couple of times, I didn’t even realize it was Christmas. Figure that was easier, in a way. Don’t know you’re missin’ anything, see? “
Slim nodded, a huge lump in his throat making it impossible to speak. Even after all these years, his partner could still surprise him with his stoic acceptance of the life he had led. He swallowed hard. “So there were times when you were out there, knowing it was Christmas?”
Jess just looked out to the hills, unmoved, before turning to Slim. “Oh yes, there was…just the once.”
“So what was it like?”
Slim waited for him to really tell him.
After a long time, Jess said very softly, “Lonely.” Then he turned angry eyes on his buddy. “Hang it all, Slim, what do you want me to say?”
Slim just shrugged, used as he was to Jess’s aggressive outbursts where his past was concerned, but also knowing Jess usually felt better for talking things through. After a while, he said calmly, “So why were you out on the drift anyway and not working?”
Jess threw him a grim smile. “Oh, I was workin’ alright, until there was a spot of trouble with a woman.”
Slim rolled his eyes. “Well, I might have known it.”
“Look, it weren’t that way, honest, Slim. See, I was workin’ for a guy in his sixties, and when this young woman introduced herself…well, I figured she was his daughter. She was real friendly — I mean, real friendly — well, hell, Slim, it would have been a crime not to kiss her. And then…”
“And then what, Jess?”
“The old rancher came into the barn and caught us. Turns out that she was his wife, not his daughter.”
“Jess, I despair of you, I really do,” said Slim, shaking his head, but hiding a smile.
“Well, the guys in the bunkhouse thought it would be real funny to tell me the old guy was a widower and then stand back and watch the fireworks. Seems Mrs. Davies tried it on with all the new wranglers.”
“So, why didn’t you just spend the holiday in the nearest town? I guess you’d have had some pay coming?”
“Oh yeah, he threw my wages at me just after he’d gotten a couple of his trained monkeys to work me over.”
“So, a decent hotel in the town it could have been worse.”
“Sure, except the town sheriff was the rancher’s brother, and he came and found me in the saloon and said I’d got me ten minutes to ride out, else he’d find a good excuse to lock me up in his jail. So I figured I’d celebrate out in the big open.”
“Uh, not much of a choice, I guess.”
“Nope. Just couldn’t stand the thought of jail after…you know,” Jess said softly, looking down.
Slim knew Jess was alluding to the terrible experience he had being incarcerated as prisoner of war and how he couldn’t bear to be confined since then. “Sure,” he said quietly. So what happened?”
“I rode out, of course. Went and bought some supplies –store was real busy,” Jess said, remembering back to that day so long ago. “Folk all buying last minute stuff for Christmas, you know — families all laughin’ and jokin’…”
“So, this was near Christmas then?”
“Yeah, Christmas Eve.”
Jess sat quietly for a moment, collecting his thoughts, and comparing and contrasting that sad day with the one he’d just lived through. Heck, it felt like a different world, a different person. He adjusted himself more comfortably in his chair, took a sip of whiskey and continued.
“It started snowing as I rode out. Felt sorry for ol’ Traveler. One minute he was snug in a warm stable with nuthin’ more taxing than a good dinner to think about, and the next he’s out in the bitter cold and snow blowing in his face.” Jess shook his head sadly. “Never could stand snow, that ol’ horse of mine.
“So I rode down Main Street and passed by the church. There was a service goin’ on; all the folk singing carols — that one…what is it….oh yeah, ‘We Three Kings’ — and it seemed to be kinda fitting,” Jess said throwing his buddy a weak smile. ”The words: ‘We three kings of Orient are; Bearing gifts we traverse afar, Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star’.” That was my old Ma’s favorite; taught it us when we were kids.
“That’s a real nice one,” Slim agreed, whistling the refrain softly.
“Uh, yeah, well, I didn’t have no gifts but I was sure travelling afar — the further the dang better, so the Sheriff had said. Field, fountain, moor and mountain… Yep, I guess I must have passed by ‘em all.”
“What about the star?” asked Slim with a grin.
To his surprise, Jess suddenly looked very emotional. “Sure, there was a star,” he said softly. Then he seemed to pull himself together. “Like I say, it was a real long time ago.”
However, Slim wasn’t about to be sidelined now. “So where did you end up for Christmas?”
Jess rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. “You just ain’t gonna give up on this are you?”
Slim shook his head smiling. “Where were you exactly?”
“I’d started out from Springfield Missouri — ranch was a couple of miles outside. I’d gone originally to look up the new Springfield National Cemetery; it was the last resting place of some of my buddies in the Confederacy. Wanted to pay my respects. Then I found work, stayed on a while. It was all working out real good, too, until that bit of bother with ol’ man Davis’s wife,” Jess said bitterly.
“Springfield. That’s a powerful long way from Texas.”
“You’re telling me. I was heading north, up to the Canadian border; thought I’d try my hand at trapping maybe.”
“But you didn’t end up there, did you?”
Jess shook his head. “No, no I didn’t; somethin’ made me change my mind.”
Slim waited patiently for the rest of the story.
“I rode out hard for the rest of the day,” Jess finally continued, “and made it to a sizable forest — sheltered, a stream for water — and figured it was as good a place as any. At least the darned snow had stopped. Was kinda peaceful, I guess. There was a full moon.”
Jess looked off to the horizon, remembering that Christmas Eve so long ago. He’d built a huge fire to keep them warm, and after he’d fed and watered Traveler, he’d blanketed him and tethered him real close in to the fire, partly for warmth, but also for the company, he had to admit.
It was a lonely spot, the stark shapes of the trees against the white snow, all illuminated by a huge moon and a myriad of twinkling stars. But there was one — one real special one — that was brighter than all the others.
“O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy Perfect Light.”
He sang, his strong, slightly slurred, baritone echoing into the silent night, making Traveler’s ears flick. An owl silently launched himself from a nearby tree, flying off in fright. He grinned to himself and took another sip of his coffee, liberally laced with hill whisky, beginning to feel real mellow.
“Go on then, ol’ star,” he mocked. Why don’t you lead me to your Perfect Light, huh?”
What did the good Lord want with the likes of him anyway, he thought bitterly, feeling desolate and abandoned.
Then he suddenly heard it — unmistakably the voice of his Ma, whispering in his ear, like she was sitting right beside him.
He half turned. ”Ma?”
There was nothing there, but the insistent voice continued. “I brought you up better than this, son — mocking the Lord just because you’ve had a bit of bad luck, feeling sorry for yourself.”
He opened his mouth to argue and then snapped it shut again, on two accounts. One he never argued with his Ma, and two, well, what was he doin’ talking to a darned ghost anyway.
‘Remember what I told you, boy, when you were a young’un — to love the dear Lord, be respectful of him?’
Jess bowed his head. “Sure, Ma,” he whispered, “but life’s kinda hard right now, you know?”
“That’s why you need to take stock then, son. Think what you want above all other and wish for it on that star — the one you’re so swift to mock. You must have belief, son, not just in our Lord to guide you, but in yourself too.”
But the forest was silent save for the lonely cry of a distant wolf and the wind in the pines sighing.
Was that all it had been — the wind in the trees? Or his dear Ma? He never knew.
Slim’s kind voice broke into his thoughts…
“I said, so what did you do then? Crack open the moonshine, like we have tonight?”
Jess’s head snapped up and he grinned, “You know me too dang well, Slim.”
“So what else happened then?”
Jess stared out to the moonlit hills and said softly, “I wished on a star.”
Something in his voice and the look in his eyes made Slim bite back the teasing comment he was about to make. “What did you wish for, pard?” he asked kindly.
After a long pause, Jess finally turned and made a sweeping gesture encompassing the ranch, yard and all the land beyond. “This,” he said simply.
“Yep. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, didn’t know it would be here with you and Andy and ol’ Jonsey, but sure as hell this was my wish come true. See, I just wished for a home — a place to belong, I guess — a fresh start.”
“And that wish came true you think?”
Jess just shrugged. “I guess so. See, I decided to follow that darned star, to head west instead of up north as I’d planned.”
“Don’t tell me,” said Slim, a broad grin on his face now. “You followed that old star until it was over our barn.”
Jess chuckled at that. “Nope, it took me to Denver, where I met that bastard Pete Morgan who pistol whipped me and stole my poker winnings. Then I happened on your spread when I was huntin’ him down!”
“Well, I guess I didn’t think it at the time, but I’m real glad you followed that old star,” said Slim sincerely.
“Me too, ‘cos the following Christmas I had my feet under your table, and like I said, thought I’d died and gone to heaven, all that grub ol’ Jonsey cooked up for us.”
Slim chuckled at that and then sobered.
“Strange, isn’t it, how things change. When you’re a little kid, you think things will always be the same — Christmas with your Ma and Pa, brothers and sisters, all the folk you love — and then suddenly it’s gone, smashed apart because folk die, or move away and things change. And Christmas will never be the same again…know what I mean?”
“I guess I do, pard. Christmas weren’t as good for me as you, but yeah, having kin around made it special, I guess. And then, like you say, they’re gone and everything’s different.”
Slim just threw him a compassionate look, knowing he’d never completely understand the horror of losing kin the way his pard had done.
Then Jess turned to him and said something that really made his buddy think.
“I guess things are never quite the same, like you said. They’re different sure, but you know what Slim?” Jess said turning his sincere gaze on his buddy. “Given time, different can be good again, real good.”
“Yeah, I think you’ve got something there, pard,” Slim replied after a moment, thinking on the Christmas they were about to celebrate with all their friends. Sure, it was different than how his Christmases used to be, but it would be good — really good — he knew that.
Slim turned back to look at the night sky and at once saw an unusually large star had risen and was shining down on them. He tipped his hat towards it. “There you are, pard, your Christmas star. So are you going to make another wish then?”
Jess stared up at it for a long while, the beauty of the clear starlit sky breathtaking. Then he glanced around the moonlit yard and off to the distant horizon, before finally turning back to Slim. “Nope, I reckon not.”
“No. See, I’ve gotten everything I want, everything I need, right here,” Jess said softly, again encompassing the yard. “All this — friends that are kin to me now and a lovin’ woman — hell, what more could a man want, Slim?” he asked, his voice thick with emotion.
Slim smiled across at him and gave him a gentle punch on the arm, before saying softly, “I’m real glad.” They sat on sipping their drinks in an easy companionship.
After a while, Slim chuckled and turned to his pard, “So you won’t want that big parcel under my bed, all wrapped up with your name on then, if you’ve gotten all you need, huh?”
Jess’s chair, which had been propped up at an angle, banged down and he swung his legs down from where they’d been resting on the hitching rail, turning to give Slim his full attention. “Heck Slim, I didn’t mean that! Sure, I want my present. I can still have it, can’t I, huh…huh? “
Slim gave a burst of suppressed laughter. Sure, sure you can. Gee, pard, you’re so dang easy to get a rise out of sometimes!”
“Come on, I reckon it’s time we turned in,” Slim said stretching and draining his glass. “We’ll have Mike awake before we know it, opening his stocking and waking the whole house up!”
Jess finished his drink and took another look at the magnificent night sky above them. So what time is it anyway?”
Slim consulted his grandpappy’s old pocket watch. Just a few minutes past midnight.”
Jess hauled himself up from his chair and then made for the barn.
“Hey where are you going?” asked Slim
“Gonna just have one last check on Snow Bird, and put this back,” Jess said with a grin, raising the half-empty bottle of hill whiskey. “You know how darned fussy Daisy is about havin’ what she calls ‘illicit spirit’ in the house,” he laughed.
“Don’t I just,” said Slim with a smile, falling into step with his buddy as they marched across the yard, the moonlight making it almost as light as day.
As Jess pulled open the barn door, the moonlight flooded in — and then both men stopped in their tracks and gaped at the scene before them for a good minute before they exchanged a look of pure wonder.
Jess turned back to the tableau before him and pushing his hat back he scratched his head in amazement.
“Well I’ll be. So your old grandpappy was right about the critters all along, Slim!”
Slim grinned from ear to ear. “He sure was, pard. I told you it’s a well known fact!”
‘I’m travelling West my gun at my side
I pray they’ll be no gunfights
May God be my guide
So I’m travelling West towards the setting sun
In my heart I feel my life has begun
From: The Ballad of Jess Harper
Thank you for reading and Merry Christmas!