The Echo of Bells
A little Christmas story, for 2012
At the end of The Sound of Bells:
Slim Sherman and Jess Harper stood in the yard, watching the stage until it finally disappeared over the hill, safely on its way to Laramie.
It was the tall man who turned away first, a sudden gust of chill winter wind making him shiver with cold. He slapped the dark-haired man on the shoulder. “C’mon, Jess, let’s get our coats.” He spun on his heel, confident that Jess was following, and headed back toward the house. Stepping inside, Slim grabbed his coat from the peg by the door and slid his arms into the sleeves. He was snugly dressed now for the December weather, but suddenly realized Jess hadn’t followed him inside. Gathering up the ranch hand’s coat and hat with a grin, he headed back outdoors.
Jess was there on the porch, slumped into one of the chairs that sat there side by side; Slim sat down in the other, handing over the coat and hat.
“Now that was some Christmas!” the tall man declared as his ranch hand shrugged into the warmth of the sheepskin-lined coat.
“I’ll say.” Jess put on the Stetson, pulling it low over his eyes as he sank deeper into the chair. The air still carried a wintery chill, but, now that they had their coats, the bright sunshine made the porch pleasantly warm. And considering that he, like all of the other occupants of the Sherman Ranch had gotten no shuteye at all the previous night, that warmth was making him very sleepy. “I could sure use a nap,” Jess mumbled, letting his eyes slide shut.
“No naps, Pard.” Slim ran a hand through his hair and attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress a yawn, his own eyes heavy. “We’ll just rest here a minute, then we got to get the chores finished.”
“Chores? It’s Christmas,” Jess lamented from beneath the shadow of his Stetson.
“We still got work to do.” Slim, too was sinking deeper into the comfort of the chair. After all, just like his ranch hand, he hadn’t gotten so much as a minute of shuteye in the past 30 hours-- and a right stressful night it had certainly been. “If we get the work done now, we could take a real nap after dinner,” he suggested.
“If I don’t get a nap now, I won’t have the strength to eat, much less do any chores,” Jess insisted grumpily, his stomach growling loudly.
If there was one thing Slim had learned about his ranch hand over the past year, it was that Jess Harper always had an appetite: morning, noon, night or anytime in between. For a little guy, Slim thought, he sure could pack away the grub. And then he remembered the bad news. “Hmm, Jess, about dinner. The cupboard’s pretty bare what with all those extra folks stayin’ here last night. They pretty much ate us out of house an’ home.”
An audible sigh emerged from under the battered, stained black hat, and the voice was filled with unhappy resignation. “Ya’ mean there’s no Christmas dinner?”
“Nothing but stale bread crusts and beans, unless you go shoot a deer.”
“I’m about hungry enough to do just that.” But the cowboy didn’t make a move to get to his feet. “Too late in the day t’go huntin’ now, Hardrock. ‘Sides, it’s Christmas. Probably some law against huntin’ on Christmas. An’ if there ain’t, there ought t’be.”
“Boy, you got an answer for everything today.” Slim yawned again, but leaned over and slapped Jess on the knee. “C’mon, pard, let’s go….” With an effort he sat up straight and rubbed his eyes, gathering the energy needed to get to his feet.
Jess, however, didn’t budge.
There was one thing Slim knew could always get even a dog-tired Jess to stir. “I’ll go get us some coffee,” the tall man suggested. “There was some left in the bottom a’ the pot on the stove, last time I checked.”
That prompted Jess to push his hat back, open one bleary eye, and nod.
Realizing that his hired hand wasn’t about to move, Slim climbed to his feet with a weary groan, rolling his shoulders and stretching his back like a cat before shuffling into the house and on to the kitchen. He picked up the coffee pot from the stove, shook it unhappily, then set it back down. A hasty search through the cupboard proved fruitless, and with a resigned sigh, Slim gave in to the inevitable. Finding two coffee cups and wiping them semi-clean with what he hoped was a not-too-dirty towel he found lying on the sideboard, the tall man emptied the dregs of the pot into them, putting equal amounts into each. It was just enough to fill them a bit over half-way.
With a sigh the rancher turned back to the cupboard and dug around in the back until he found the bottle hidden there. He picked up the half-full cups by the handles in one hand, and carrying the nearly-full bottle in the other, Slim walked back outside. He kicked Jess’ booted foot, which prompted the cowboy to slide his hat further back on his head and sit up a bit straighter. “Here.” Slim extended a cup toward the hired hand.
Jess took the offering and realizing it was awfully light-weight, peered into it with dismay. “Half a cup? Don’t tell me coffee’s on short rations, too.”
Slim sank into his chair, a look of tired resignation on his face. “It is. That’s the last of it.” Then he held up the brown bottle, which was nearly full. “Reckon we can stretch it some with this. Bottom of the pot might be a bit strong otherwise,” he rationalized. Slim pulled the cork from the bottle with his teeth and leaning over, added an inch of the amber liquid to Jess’ cup before doing the same to his own. Done, he carefully set the bottle on the floor beside his chair, shoving the stopper back into place with a slap of his hand.
Jess lifted the cup toward Slim, “Here’s to ya’, Pard,” he toasted, and took an appreciative sip of the mixture. “That ain’t too bad.” He sat up straighter, then stopped and looked over at Slim suspiciously. “But I thought this stuff was for medicinal purposes only.”
“This is medicinal. Lack of sleep.” The tall man grinned. “Just don’t let on to Jonesy.”
Jess smiled conspiratorially, hoisting the cup for another toast. “To medicinal purposes.”
“To Christmas.” Slim countered.
They drank down the mixture, then Slim filled each cup half full again, straight from the bottle. “Merry Christmas, pard.”
“Same to you.”
Slim stretched his long legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “Didn’t turn out to be such a bad Christmas after all. Even the stage’ll only be a day late.”
“We lost Jim, though. He was a darn good man.”
“No doubt of that.” Slim picked up the bottle and topped off their cups once more, raising his in salute. “To Jim.”
“To Jim,” Jess agreed, raising his cup.
They each took another drink, then were silent for a few moments, gazing out across the snow dusted hills, thinking over the events of the previous night. Finally, it was Slim who spoke up. “That was a fool stunt you pulled, Jess.”
“Goin’ out to the barn with Ross after that Christmas tree.”
“Well, it wasn’t doin’ us any good sittin’ in the barn.”
“Wasn’t getting’ anybody shot at, neither,” Slim reminded him.
Jess shrugged. “Worked out all right, though.”
“You were lucky,” Slim pointed out.
Jess couldn’t argue with that. He was silent a bit before adding, quietly, “Poor little kid all alone, he deserved some kind of a’Christmas.”
Slim looked over at Jess, raising an eyebrow. “Sometimes, pard, you are a softie.”
Jess jerked upright. “Who me? Why, I ain’t no….”
“Softie. You are.” Slim grinned.
“You are,” Slim insisted in his best ‘boss’ tone, the one he’d learned as an officer during the war.
“Hmmpf,” Jess mumbled, sinking back in his chair, changing the subject and looking around morosely. “So, some kind of a’Christmas this turned out to be for us. Not even a decent dinner.”
“Or a real cup a’coffee,” he added, draining the last drop of liquid.
“Can’t be helped.”
Jess slumped sadly once again, glumly staring into the bottom of his now empty cup, contemplating a day without a decent meal or any more coffee. It was, he thought, a sorry way to spend Christmas. And then a happier thought suddenly hit him, and he sat up straighter, smiling. “Hey, Slim, we got Christmas presents ain’t been opened!”
Slim nodded. “We sure do, pard. I left mine inside on the dresser.”
“And mine on the bed. I’ll go get ‘em.” Jess jumped up, his weariness abruptly forgotten, and he disappeared quickly into the house.
Slim shook his head, listening to the sounds from indoors as booted feet thumped across the floor, a door opened, and then he heard grumbling and brisker, louder footsteps returning.
In a moment, Jess came stomping out of the house, empty-handed and glaring at the tall man as he slammed the door behind him. “Slim, did you move those presents?”
“Well, they ain’t where we left ‘em. You sure you didn’t put em’ somewhere else? ‘Cause they ain’t th…” and then Slim saw realization dawn on his pard’s face, the puzzlement turning to anger. “I knew I should have shot that no good rotten pistolero!”
“What? Shoot Angel? Why?”
“The presents are gone! Angel left without the gold, but he stole our Christmas presents!”
For a moment, they stared at one another, and then both of them erupted into laughter.
x---------------- The End -------------------x