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Western Short Story
Christmas Whiskey
Jay Peters

Western Short Story

It’s Christmas week of ’09 and my young friend, Ben, and I are bundled up, sitting here in the winter sun, on the veranda of the old folk’s home, trading windies and playing chess. Ben is the 50ish newspaper editor in town. He comes by, now and then, to visit. Usually, it’s when he has something on his mind. He likes to think out loud at somebody’s and I listen well. We cuss and discuss the politics of the day, from the Taft White House’s high tariffs and the new income tax, to Denver Mayor Speer’s civic improvements. The latest livestock yard expansion, new cannery openings, and the railroads. Then we shift to the latest local scandal, religion, and family news. Somewhere in there we have covered his worry.

I knew Ben Thomas when he was just a kid running errands for the local Newspaper and printshop. As the Livery Stable owner, I knew of the comin’s and goin’s of strangers and businessmen. I’d give Ben tips on their doin’s and he could pass it on to his editor who could then follow up with an interview. Ben developed his nose for news into a lifelong habit.

“Mr. Curtis, got a package here fer yuh, Suh. It sloshes a bit,” Joe grins. “Shall I brings you gentleman’s a couple of glasses?”

“Joe’s the new Orderly here. I explain to Ben. “He left being a railroad Porter to work here. He watches out special for me. He won’t let me teach him chess, though. I suspect it’s because he already knows more than me. Good man and a good friend. But, he don’t know yet that we don’t drink liquor before lunch.” I tease.

“Joe, if’n yuh fetch us a refill on our coffees, and a cup for yoreself’s, and a corkscrew. We’ll toast the old memory behind this here package,” I wink at him.

Joe is back in a couple of minutes with the coffee pot. I waved Joe into the empty seat at our table. Cut a corner off the package to poke the neck of the bottle thru, I hand it to Joe to pull the cork. From the opened bottle, I doctor our three coffees with a healthy splash of whiskey. Plugging the cork back in, I tipped back, closed my eyes, and began the tale.

Back in about Eighteen Seventy over in central Colorado, there was a cave-in at the MaryBelle Mine. Named after Old Man Matthew’s beloved but deceased wife. In ways, he was an old sour skinflint and drove his miners hard. He could not abide wasted money or slackers. Yet, he looked after their safety, and babies, and sick kids. The miners both cursed and blessed him.

The mine crew was reshoring the mine portal when it collapsed. The rumble was felt throughout town. The dust rushed out the mouth o’ the mine and up the air vent high up on the mountain side. Women were screaming, kids wuz bawlin’, men shouting, confusion reigning. Old Man Matthews cracking orders as the off-shift miners rushed to the mine. In a couple of hours, he had the rescue organized. A rescue team working the air shaft was sending down supplies for the injured, food, water and light. The air shaft was too small to raise the seriously injured, so the men voted to stay below and care for the injured and do what they could to clear their end of the collapse.

Matthews had extra men hired, hauling shoring timbers in, and the rock waste away. It took the rest of a week working three shifts a day to clear enough space. Allowing the trapped men to crawl out and the injured to be slid out on stretchers to escape. Took another week to finish clearing and shoring the portal to put the gold mine back into production. Much later, he had another portal drilled and blasted into the mine.

Old Man Matthews was everywhere those two weeks, comforting families and organizing the ladies, buying supplies, organizing the crews, making decisions, ironing out problems, spending money.

He kept a tally book tucked in his coat inside breast pocket. In it he made notes of who he gave responsibility, who worked extra, who volunteered, which businesses helped, or gave, or took.

Fer instance, of the eight bars and saloons in town, only two gave the first beer free to the rescue team miners. Until he died, Matthews ordered all his personal liquor and beer from those two bars, The mine bought their liquor and beer there for their banquets or miner’s picnics. Matthews bought a holiday round of drinks from time to time. People noticed, drifted their business that way, making those two bar owners rich.

There were two General Stores. One donated food or carried miner families’ credit. Sold at cost to the mine whatever they had. The other overcharged Matthews on his purchases. He paid without sayin’ a word. He just made a note in that tally book of his. So he never forgot and never bought there again. People noticed and followed his example. That store owner finally sold out cheap and left town nearly broke.

Matthews paid the medical bills of the injured and their families. Continued to pay his miners regular and overtime. Made sure they were treated fair. Invested in safety measures.

Others that got listed in that tally book were the likes of the blacksmith who made iron timber brace-plates at cost. Or the Millinery lady that made bandages for free. The Saddlery made heavy gloves for the rescue teams. The Butcher, the Baker and the Cafe made daily sandwiches for the rescue teams. The sawmill switched to sawing only shoring timbers for the mine. Other orders were delayed until the mine reopened.

One older boy, who was too light for heavy work, found a shoulder yoke to haul buckets of drinking water to the mine crews for the two weeks. Even the prospector and the town drunk partnered up. They refilled and hauled canteens of water on the prospector’s burro up to the airshaft to be lowered to the trapped miners.

The tailor shop never lifted a finger to help. Nor did the laundry. Wasn’t much the barber could do but at least he offered. The banker refused a request from Old Man Matthews to delay loan payments for the injured miners. One Lawyer offered to defend the Mine. The other lawyer started researching injury claims against the mine. The miners quickly let it be known that they would not serve on juries or be witnesses for any of his cases. That lawyer lost a lot of business.

The Newspaper, for four weeks, printed up the disaster and rescue story in detail. Including names of all the miners and their heroic actions. The third week’s paper printed mostly interviews with the miners for on the scene reports. Editorially, the paper supported the Mine and Mr. Matthew’s efforts. They found out Ben here had learned his type cases. So they gave him his first chance pegging type for headlines. He found out that all the spelling the school teacher insisted he learn, really was important.

All of these and more, were duly noted in that tally book.

As livery stable owner, I sent up two freight wagons. Each with a four-span mule team and a driver for the two weeks. Swapping out the drivers and mules as they wore out. Never said a word to Matthews. He never said a word to me. I never took a payment. But ever since, he bought all his mine mules, harness gear, wagons, horses and gear, buggies, and livestock feed from me. We became good friends. We talked mine and miner problems. We had great fun talking livestock, or vehicles, and haggling price. He paid fair and prompt. I attended his funeral when his time came.

He never said a word of Thanks but always sent a quart of the best whiskey every Christmas. He died in ’01 but the mine company has continued sending the Christmas Whiskey ever since. Thirty-nine years since that disaster; thirty-nine quarts. Nowadays, a nip at bedtime sure helps with the aches of old age and improves my sleep.

I lifted high my cup of coffee, “A toast to the MaryBelle Mine; May it always produce high grade ore. And a toast to Old Man Matthews; May he ever more stand beside Saint Peter checking the Tally Book. Cheers.” Echoed by two “Hear, Hears”.

Life is Good