Western Short Story
Reverend Matt was excited as he jumped up on top of the bar of the Dusty Rose Saloon. The Rev loved every day and he certainly looked forward to Sundays, but this was Christmas and so it was special. Last night, Matt’s wife, Stacy, had thought he was more excited about this morning and giving his sermon than she and her brothers had been on Christmas Eve when they were little and looking forward to their presents the next morning.
Matt took a moment, caught his breath and first looked down at Stacy, whose smile let him know today, as it did every day, that everything was going to be good. He then looked out at those gathered, so many of the people of Dry Springs. Almost all of the faces were familiar, and they were all friendly. It was a good day. This was now his town, not in the sense that he owned it, but that he and Stacy were a part of it, that they belonged in a way they never did in Cincinnati. These were his people, and because the new church, the Dry Springs Church of the Resurrection, was not yet completed, and because it was Christmas morning, and because Will, the owner of the Dusty Rose, was generous enough to allow his saloon to be used as a church, this is where they gathered.
It seemed a little odd to some that a saloon doubled as a church. At first, there were those who suggested, sometimes strongly, that there had to be another place, any place other than a saloon, to hold church services. Though Will worked hard to make sure the Rose was clean before services, covering the bottles and hiding the cards and glasses, it was still a saloon six days a week. And as a result, it had a particular smell, an unmistakable combination of stale beer, spilt liquor and cigar smoke, mixed with the strong odor that men who work hard and bath infrequently uniquely produce. But for today, for this Christmas, in this town, the Dusty Rose Saloon was Reverend Matt’s house of worship, and there was nowhere else he would rather be and no group of people he’d rather be with.
Matt’s voice, as it could do when he wanted it to, boomed out, “Merry Christmas!”
Those who weren’t fully awake moments ago were now, and Matt was rewarded with a full-throated and enthusiastic response of “Merry Christmas, Reverend” from almost everyone in the saloon church. Smiling broadly, he launched right into his sermon.
“Christmas Day is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. For centuries, the celebration has taken place on the twenty-fifth of December, though no one seems to know for sure that this was the actual date of Christ’s birth. Some will tell you that the date was selected because the ancient Roman calendars marked the twenty-fifth of December as the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year, and starting with that day, each day moving forward would be sunnier and warmer. And for those who believe that—and it makes sense to me—we are supported by the Old Testament, Chapter Four, Verse Two from the Book of Malachi, where Jesus was identified with the sun.
“‘But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping likes calves from the stall.’
“Those of you who know me know I am a Christian, a man of God, a Reverend. In Hebrew, Malachi means God’s messenger, and for today, for this morning, that is what I hope to be. And my message is this—does it really matter why today is the day chosen to celebrate? Let us leave that to the scholars and the historians. What does matter is that you’re here. I know that not all of you here are Christians, or even believers, but you’re still here—and that’s what matters. It matters to God, it matters to your family, it matters to your neighbors—and it matters to me. So, thank you. Thank you for coming out on this cold, snowy, beautiful Christmas morning. Thank you to Will for opening his doors to us, not just today, but every day, and thank God for the gifts he has given each of us and will continue to give every day. And together, on this morning, as we should do every day, let’s celebrate people, let’s celebrate life and let’s celebrate love.”
Huck had plenty to be thankful for—and he was—but he was also uncomfortable as he sat at his table in the Dusty Rose Saloon. He was thankful because it was Christmas Day and he was sitting with his new family—his mother, Sophie; his father Brock; and his grandfather, Ray. He was uncomfortable because he was wearing new clothes that seemed designed solely to make him miserable. He didn’t see any way in which these clothes would make God any happier, or provide additional proof, beyond his being here, that he was a believer, but his mom had not been open to discussion on this issue, and so here he was, dressed like this.
His shirt, for the first time ever, was buttoned up completely to his neck, and to make sure he was miserable—at least that was the only reason he could think of—Sophie had added a tie that he was certain was designed to make him feel like he was being strangled. And even though it was freezing outside, there were so many people crammed into a small area it was quickly going from warm to hot, only making Huck hate his clothes even more. He also had on brand-new shoes that were just big enough to fit and just small enough so that they pinched. Huck glanced back at his best friend Tom and took some comfort in the fact he looked just as silly and just as miserable.
Though Huck was sitting quietly, he was fidgeting, as much from his excitement about getting home and seeing his gifts as it was because of the clothes. Or maybe, it was just because he was a twelve-year-old boy, stuck at a table, unable to move or speak or play, and he was ready to explode if he didn’t get out and run soon. He just knew that he needed to get home, get out of these clothes and see if it was really possible that his dream Christmas present, a brand-new Remington 1866 rifle, was waiting for him. For the past couple of weeks that was all he could think about. He begged his new parents to tell him if they had gotten it for him, even asked Grandpa Ray if he knew anything and, more than once, when alone in the house, searched everywhere he could think of, hoping to find it hidden away. But nobody told him and he couldn’t find it, so all he could do was wait for Reverend Matt to be done, race home and find out for himself.
Huck, only half listening to the Reverend, grew a little sad. As he often did, but certainly every Christmas, he thought about the mom he never knew, the woman who died when he was born. He only knew her from stories his dad told, but from those stories, he felt he knew her and would have loved her, and she would have loved him. For the past twelve years, it had just been him and his dad, and that had been enough. They did everything together, and Huck had been devastated when earlier this year his dad was killed when he was thrown from a horse, Spirit, the same horse that Huck now rode every day in memory of his father. Huck already loved his new family and knew they loved him, but he was determined to never forget his first father, or the stories he told about the mother he never got to know. Huck was brought back to full attention as Matt’s voice got even louder and stronger.
“You all know I love music. Doesn’t take much to get me to pull out my harmonica and play and sing. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told by Stacy that sometimes it’s much harder to get me to stop than it is to start.”
Those who knew Matt—and Stacy—laughed in the way friends do at these types of truths. Matt accepted the laughter good naturedly, and continued.
“But as much as it pains me, this morning is not a time for the harmonica.” A bit more laughter was heard, and Matt hoped there wasn’t relief mixed in with it. “This is a time for hymns, for carols, for all of us to raise our voices together, loud enough to be heard in the heavens. About ten years ago a man in Pennsylvania, John Hopkins, wrote a beautiful Christmas carol. It was popular among all churches when I left Ohio, and I hope it’s made its way to Dry Springs. Please stand up and join me. If you don't know the words, just hum along until you pick them up.”
And with that, the good Reverend reached down deep and started singing “We Three Kings,” in a voice familiar to all those who frequented the Dusty Rose, whether for church or a drink.
kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
As often happens, the voices started out tentative and Matt stood out above all of them. But as people grew more comfortable and the words started to come to them, they picked up, and soon Matt’s voice was only one of many, or maybe now they were all one voice—one that just might be heard in the heavens.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Rings through the earth and skies.
Matt was beaming from ear to ear, his head thrown back and his arms stretched high, as if they could join the voices and reach the heavens.
“Thank you! That was beautiful—and it won’t be the last one we sing today.”
Matt stopped for a moment and looked out at all the people, filling every table and every chair and, for those who came late, standing. He jumped off the bar, took Stacy’s hand and guided her up on a chair, then onto a table and then onto the bar. He joined her, still holding her hand.
“You all know my wife, Stacy. She’s the reason everyone is so nice to me.” As Stacy turned just a little red, Matt smiled, knowing it was at least half true. “And since today is about being grateful, among the many things I am grateful for, allow me to say how grateful I am for Stacy. We came here only a few months ago, joined by Shawn and Kim Dixon along with Nolan and Nerissa Cauthen and their two beautiful little children, Oscar and Hattie. We were welcomed to Dry Springs, a town we had never heard of, in a part of the country none of us had ever been to or planned to do anything in other than travel through on our way to California. But in the way fortune has of laughing at men’s plans, we wound up here, with you. And for that, and Stacy, I am forever grateful. And as I look around our church, with its bar pulpit, its pews of bar tables, and a cross hanging in front of a blanket that, for the day, hides bottles of booze, I am reminded of how unexpected and unexplainable so much of life can be and how each of us has plenty to be grateful for.
“For me, for Stacy and me, we are grateful to be here, grateful for you. Some might say it was good fortune that brought us here. Some might say it was the weather, or common sense. Some might say it was God. I like to think it was all of those. But brought here we were, as were all of you. As with many small towns, we have had our challenges, most of them before Stacy and I got here, but every one of them helped make this town—and these people—what they, what we, are.”
Huck looked around and saw that everyone was quiet, everyone was listening and many people were nodding along with Reverend Matt. He started to pay more attention and soon began to think that maybe Matt was speaking directly to him. And so Huck set aside thoughts of how uncomfortable his clothes were and even whether or not there was a beautiful new rifle waiting for him at home. Instead, he started to think about the people in his life, how fortunate he was to have them and how very different his life might be right now if things had gone differently.
He looked back at Tom, who had fallen asleep at his table, and knew what he was going to do. Tom was his fishing buddy, but more important, Tom was his best friend. Tom also loved Huck’s fishing pole. It was a beautiful, hand-made, twelve-foot-long, hickory rod, with an honest-to-goodness real British Haywood reel. Huck knew all this because the man who traded the pole to his father three years ago for a saddle he needed when his was stolen clearly loved the rod and reel and hated to give them up and had explained to his dad, in detail, what they were. Huck had listened to the stories, and since he loved fishing and his dad didn’t, his dad gave the rod and reel to Huck. While Huck’s dad wasn’t much for fishing, he would spend a couple of hours on many a Sunday afternoon watching Huck fish the creek, and then the two of them would cook dinner together, eating only what Huck had caught. Looking back, Huck realized that the rod and reel, while beautiful, were not worth as much as the saddle, and he also knew his dad would have known that. And now Huck knew that his dad would agree that there was no better use for that rod and reel than to give it to Tom as a Christmas gift, as a sign of their friendship. Huck only hoped Tom would still let him use it some.
Huck, unable to stare Tom awake, turned around and started to listen again to Matt.
“…celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But let’s also let today be a celebration of the birth, or the rebirth, of Dry Springs. I know this town is twenty years old, and many are to be thanked for it being here—certainly Ray Hinton, who rode in here with a couple of wagons all those years ago, not unlike the trip that Stacy and so many of us have made in the past few months, except when he got here, there was nothing. And with nothing but the strength in his hands, his back and his character, he and his wife and a few others started this town, which while small, offered a safe haven to those who lived here and were willing to work together, through good times and bad.
“But as the story goes, Dry Springs, only a few short months ago, stood on the precipice, looking down at the fires of hell and being pushed hard from behind by Kurt and his men. But another newcomer rode into town and did not so much give our town strength, but revealed the strength that was here, but had been forgotten.”
Everyone turned to look at Brock, who could not look up, but only at Sophie, holding her hand just a little harder than usual.
Matt continued. “But now that strength has been revealed, and as strength always does, it draws others to Dry Springs, as it did me and Stacy and many of you here.”
Matt looked around, his eyes lingering on Shawn and Kim, Nerissa, Stacy, and the table with Cisco, Maria, Cat and Clybs.
“Those of us who are here, whether it’s been for twenty years or twenty days, have much to be grateful for, and this day, of all days, is the one to take a little extra time and give thanks. But when the day ends, when the feasting is done, the presents have been opened and the fire is left to burn down to coals, do not forget that with the dawn, comes the responsibility. The gifts that we’ve been given are not guaranteed, not even by God. We have to continue to work hard, to take care of and care for each other.”
There were heads nodding, murmurs of agreement and even a couple of “amens” that let Matt know he was on the right track.
“We have built, and continue to do so. We have a blacksmith shop, a barbershop, new farms and ranches, and Hattie’s restaurant, which you should all know will be closed today”—this announcement was met by loud sounds of disappointment from many, but especially from the huge McClaskey family who had been waiting all week for some of Nerissa’s town-favorite pies—“and soon our own school and church. These are good things. We have also added a sheriff and a jail. These are necessary things. I dread the first time the sheriff or Deputy Clybs have to lock someone up in the jail, but that day will come. It is a sad truth that not all people are good and that some are evil, and some of those evil people are drawn to a town like ours like a moth is drawn to a flame. But as long as we stick together, we will weather any and all storms, beat back all challenges, and continue to grow and prosper.”
Huck’s mind started to wander again, and he found himself thinking about the gifts he had bought for Sophie, Brock and Ray. Until a few weeks ago, Huck was so focused on getting a rifle for Christmas, he hadn’t even thought about what to get for everyone else. But one day after school, he was helping Grandpa Ray at his general store when he unloaded and opened a box with the most beautiful beaver hat he had ever seen. It was huge, much taller than any hat in town and with a brim an inch, if not two inches, wider than any Huck had seen. No one would forget a man wearing that hat and Huck knew immediately it was the perfect gift for Brock. Huck had been saving the money he earned working at the store and knew he had some money coming from the work at the livery, but he didn’t know if he had enough for this hat, which was marked at $25.
“Yes, Huck? You done unloading that wagon?
“No, Grandpa, I’m not, but almost. Can I talk to you ’bout this hat?”
Ray looked at the hat and knew immediately it was a mistake. He would have never ordered a hat that big and would normally just send it back. Smiling, Ray looked at Huck and the hat.
“There’s no way that hat will fit you, son.”
“No, Grandpa, it’s not for me. It’s a gift. I just don't know if I have enough money.”
Ray realized right away that Huck wanted to buy the hat for Brock, and while he thought it was sweet, he also smiled thinking of what Brock would look like wearing that hat and knowing he would have to if it was a gift from Huck.
“Huck, you want that hat for your dad?’
“I’ll tell you what. The hat is yours and you can pay me after Christmas. By then, you’ll have earned most of the money. For now, you hold onto your money in case you want to buy anyone else a gift, and I’ll hold onto the hat so Brock won’t see it before Christmas.” And with that, both Ray and Huck were happy.
Sophie’s gift had been a little harder for Huck to figure out, since it didn’t just show up in the way Brock’s hat did, but he did receive quite a bit of help from Sophie herself. Since Sophie wasn’t just Huck’s mom—she was also his school teacher—they spent quite a bit of time talking about books, often far more than Huck really wanted to. One day at school, Sophie was talking about William Shakespeare and how he might be the best writer ever and certainty was the most important she knew of. She happened to mention that she hoped one day to have a collection of his works for the school.
Only a couple of days after that, Kenny Clark was down from Denver, making his regular monthly supply run from Denver to Dry Springs. Huck had gotten to know Kenny, since he always helped unload the supplies and they talked the whole time they unloaded. Since it was too late in the afternoon for Kenny to start back to Denver, Ray invited him to supper and then he’d spent the night at the Soft Beds hotel. Since he had some time before supper, he stayed at the store and helped Huck unpack everything. One of the crates had glassware in it, each piece wrapped with a recent copy of the Rocky Mountain News newspaper. Huck found himself staring at an advertisement for a bookstore in Denver, and right in the middle of the page was a picture of nine books and the headline, “William Shakespeare, The Works. This 9-volume set is edited by the Rev. Alexander Dyce and is beautifully printed and bound.”
Huck knew he had found the perfect gift for Sophie. He showed Kenny the paper.
“Kenny, if I give you the money, would you be able to pick this up for me and bring it back down on your next trip?”
“Huck, are you sure you want to spend this much money on books? Usually, you complain about school!”
“I know, but it’s for my mom and I know she’ll love it.”
“OK, I’ll be back a week before Christmas and I’ll have it with me.”
“Thanks, Kenny. Let’s close up here and head up to the house for supper.”
Matt continued on about how great Dry Springs was, how it was because of the people—new and old—and how it was up to each of them to make sure it stayed great. But Huck only half listened as he thought about the final gift he had picked up.
Since the incident with Kurt and his men, Grandpa Ray had started wearing a gun again, something he had not done for more than a decade. And while he had picked out a great gun from his own store, he still hadn’t found just the right holster, so he was using an old, beat-up one that a cowboy had traded for supplies a few months back. Huck didn’t think it was good enough for his grandpa.
Huck had known Frank for as long as he could remember. Frank always helped him and his dad on the ranch when they needed it and even helped out at the livery a few times when things were too busy for him and his dad to handle. Frank was quiet and lived by himself on a small piece of property outside of town, but when he visited, he was always willing to help and answer any questions Huck might have. And as with many a curious young boy, Huck had plenty of questions. Huck remembered sitting in the livery, watching Frank work on anything made of leather—saddles, holsters, bridles, anything—and when he was done, how beautiful it always looked.
And so, with only a week to go before Christmas, Huck finally figured out the last gift. He rode out to Frank’s place and asked him to make a holster for the beautiful Colt 1851 Navy Revolver, a gun Grandpa Ray said was past its prime, though he then always laughed and said, “So am I.”
Frank agreed to do it, for a price Huck could afford. And only yesterday, Huck had ridden back to Frank’s ranch to pick it up, and as promised, it was done—and beautiful. He knew his grandpa was going to love it. He picked up the holster and kept turning it over and looking at it from different sides.
“Grandpa’s gonna love this. How’d you learn to do it?”
“You’re welcome Huck. I’m happy to work on things like that, and the truth is, I can use the money. I learned how during the war. Sometimes we’d go days, even weeks, between marchin’ and fightin’, and I didn’t like cards like lots of the guys, so I learned this to pass the time.”
Huck nodded and, at the same time, noticed a rifle off to the side of the table that Frank was working on and asked what it was.
“It’s an old Springfield. Still have it from the war. That’s why I need the cash money. I’ve fixed this old thing so often, I’m not sure there’s an original part left on it. Don’t think I can fix it this time, and I hate to be out here without a rifle. Soon as I save up enough money, I’ll be in to get one from the store.”
“Well, when you do come in, I’ll be sure to help you. I study all the guns we have, and Grandpa says I know more about them than he does.”
Frank smiled, put the money into a small can on the kitchen counter, and started to clean up the mess from the holster and the final attempt to save the old Springfield. Huck asked about his plans for Christmas.
Still smiling, Franks said, “I’ll be in in the morning for Reverend Matt’s sermon. Grown to hate missing any of ’em, and I figure Christmas should be plenty good.”
“Where you going for Christmas dinner?”
Frank’s smile faded just a little bit, barely enough for Huck to notice. “I’ll come back out here. Probably shoot me a rabbit on the way home from church for dinner. Family is all down south. Now, you get out of here before it starts to get too dark. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Huck reached out, shook Frank’s hand, let himself out the front door, packed the holster into one of his saddlebags and headed back to town. The last thing he saw was Frank, moving slowly, cleaning up the table.
And now, looking around, he saw Frank standing in the back of the saloon, just a little set aside from everyone else. As he was watching Frank, thinking about how much Grandpa Ray was going to love the holster, Reverend Matt once again picked up the volume and the tempo, an indicator he was getting close to the finish.
“…and I challenge each of you to take care of yourselves, to take care of your families and to take care of this community, our community. Please remember on this day, the day of Christ’s birth, that you should always be as strong as you have to be, as generous as you can be and as kind as you would want others to be, and to live your life as if God is walking next to you.
“With Christmas being on a Friday this year, we won’t have services on Sunday, so everyone can get their chores done, or enjoy a day of rest. Our next services will be a week from Sunday, which will make it next year, 1869.
“Thank you to each and every one of you for allowing me into your lives. Go with God, go with my love and travel safely. And in closing, please join me and let's once again raise our voices to the heavens in singing ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’”
the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
all ye nations, rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come
Offspring of the Virgin's womb
And with that, everyone worked their way outside, hugging each other
goodbye, wishing each other a merry Christmas and heading home before it got any colder. Out of the corner of his eye, Huck noticed Frank, all alone, sitting atop his horse, buttoning his jacket against the wind and cold. He thought back to what Frank had said the day before about not having any family and eating dinner alone, and without asking Brock and Sophie, Huck ran to catch Frank before he could ride away.
“Frank, would you please join us for Christmas dinner?”
Frank looked back at Brock and Sophie, who were talking to Cisco and Maria, not looking at all in Frank’s direction.
“Huck, do your folks know you’ve invited me?”
Huck, thinking this was one was little white lie God would forgive him for, said, “It was their idea. We’ve got plenty of food, and we’ll be done in time for you to still get home before dark.”
Frank rode alongside as Huck, Brock, Sophie and Ray walked from the Dusty Rose back to the house. Huck helped Frank put his horse in the barn, rub it down and treat it to a little grain. Ray got the fire going while Sophie and Brock started the last-minute work in the kitchen. By the time Frank and Huck walked in, the house was warm, and dinner, which smelled delicious, was almost ready. At Sophie’s insistence, Frank took a seat in one of the two large leather chairs, and before he could even get comfortable, Ray handed him a glass of bourbon. Frank looked around the house, at the fire, the table and, mostly, at the people, and for a moment he allowed himself to compare it to what he would have been doing had Huck not stopped him from riding home alone. Thinking back to Matt’s sermon, Frank realized that he had plenty to be grateful for, starting with these friends.
They all enjoyed a good meal together. Sophie was a great cook, and there was bread, ham, turkey and vegetables piled high. A bottle of wine was shared between the four adults, while Huck sipped a glass of cold milk, and the conversation shifted easily from subject to subject. There was plenty of food and laughter, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, perhaps especially Frank.
It took a bit to convince Frank to stay while they opened gifts, but everyone understood that not knowing he was coming he hadn’t brought any gifts. The promise of some of one of Nerissa’s pies pushed Frank over the edge, and he settled back into the very comfortable chair to watch.
Ray took it upon himself to hand out the presents, one at a time, of course. Huck went first and was thrilled when he opened the package and found a Bowie knife. It was a little big, but Huck didn’t think it would take him long to grow into it, and he thought it was a perfect gift. More gifts were opened and everyone seemed to be having a good time, including Frank, even though there were no gifts for him. Sophie loved the Shakespeare books and instantly announced they would not be leaving the house for the school. When Brock opened his present, he made a face Huck hadn’t seen before, shot a quick glance at Ray and then put the hat on. Huck thought it looked great.
The next to last gift was the holster from Huck, for Grandpa Ray. He opened the package, looked inside, and without a word, sat down and pulled the holster out of the package, feeling the fine craftsmanship and seeing where his name had been burned into the leather. He got up, went to the peg by the front door where he usually hung his gun, strapped on the holster and slipped the Navy Colt into its new home. He walked over to Huck, picked him up and squeezed him hard enough that Huck began to wonder where his next breath would come from. He managed to squeak out that Frank had actually made the holster.
Ray set Huck down, not a moment too soon for Huck, walked over and shook Frank’s hand.
“Beautiful work, Frank. The best I’ve seen. Thank you.”
“You are welcome, sir. I am glad you like it. In my home, fine leather work is passed down from father to son, hopefully for many generations. May the same thing happen for you.”
Huck looked down under the Christmas tree and saw one last gift, which had been buried behind all of the other gifts. It was what he’d been hoping for, a long box with his name on it, and he knew. He knew it held the Remington 1866 rifle that he’d been dreaming about. And just before he raced over and ripped open that box, he caught himself. He thought about what Matt had said today, and he thought about all the gifts he’d received in the last couple of months, none of which came in a box. And Huck now knew Christmas was not about receiving gifts, and it wasn’t even about giving gifts. It was about people. It was about family. It was about love.
And so he walked over and picked up the box, took the tag off and slipped it gently into his shirt pocket. Then he turned and handed the box to Frank, saying simply, “Merry Christmas.” He looked up at his parents, who both had tears in their eyes, and Huck knew he had done the right thing. It had been the perfect gift.