I'll Be Home For Christmas


by Arren



 

D

Dear Andy, Slim and Jonesy,

Well, it is almost over now. The trial has lasted more than two weeks and it finally looks like it will be over in a day, maybe two. You know I still cannot talk about it, but the lawyers are coming to an agreement that should have us adjourned by the end of the week if all goes well.

 

I have missed you all a lot and I even miss the work we do every day. You never realize what a good life you have until you are forced into doing something that you really do not want to do. What I would not give some days to be outside in the sun, riding with you out to the fences and digging holes rather than sitting for hours on end in a cramped and dark courtroom. Even at night they won’t let us go out for fear that we will get into trouble and not come back. I never saw the like.

 

I really am looking forward to seeing Bitty’s puppies, Andy. I’ll bet they are a lot of fun. Too bad they cannot stay little and cute. Everything has to grow up. I just hope that they and you do not grow up too much before I get home.

 

Jonesy, the food here is not awful, but it cannot hold a candle to yours. The hotel serves the same thing each day of the week every week. What I mean is, if it is Tuesday you can count on lamb stew. If it’s Friday, it will always be Shepherd’s Pie. I reckon they do not count on people staying as long as I have had to. I am not complaining really. I know I am obliged to do this and will see it through.

 

Please keep writing to me when you can. I look forward to your letters and read them over and over. Sometimes that is all I have to do. They will not let us read newspapers and you know I ain’t much for books. I have read a couple since I been here though. Don’t laugh, Slim. I read that book you wanted me to, Robin Hood. Turns out one of the other witnesses had it in his bag and gave it to me when he finished. It was good and I liked it, but was kind of hard to read that old way of talking. The other book was a Mormon prayer book. You can see how desperate I was, so keep those letters coming!

 

I will sign off now. I hope this finds you all well, as I am. Do not worry, Andy, I will be home for Christmas for sure.

Sincerely,

Jess

 

Andy gazed again at the well-worn and oft-read letter through watery pools of tears. He didn’t mean to cry, but sometimes just thinking about Jess being so far from home this close to Christmas seemed so sad. A big sloppy tear ran down his cheek and plopped right in the middle of the letter and smeared the ink of a few words. He quickly wiped it off and re-folded the letter along the deep creases that were already etched in it from the hundred or so times he had unfolded it and refolded it during the two weeks since Mose brought it to the house on one of his regular stage runs. The date at the top of the letter was over a month before and there was no word since that. Jess’ promise to be home by Christmas seemed less and less likely every day.

 

Slim had been so worried that he telegraphed Porterville for some word of the trial, and of course, Jess. Two days later the brief reply came: Sherman <stop> Trial over<stop> Laster convicted<stop> Escaped<stop> Killed three<stop> Harper present-hurt some-went after Laster<stop>Last known<stop>Marcus Wisely-City Council.

 

Three other telegrams back and forth had established that the sheriff and two deputies had been killed and Jess was shot in the arm but was not hurt seriously. Most of the men in town had families and were frankly happy to be rid of Laster. Jess and the other material witness, a Frank Porter, a distant relation of the town’s founder, were the only ones to go after Laster. That was the last anyone in that miserable little town knew of Jess. That last part was Slim’s editorial as he was telling Andy and Jonesy about the latest telegram from Porterville.

 

Slim had made Andy go on to bed after that, but Andy could hear through the door that Jonesy had a few choice words for the good folks of Porterville, Kansas. He listened at the door as Jonesy and Slim discussed their options. They decided that it would be no use for Slim to ride for Porterville. At this late date the trail was too cold, and it would take him almost a week to ride there. Jess could be anywhere by then. There were no trains to that part of Kansas nor anywhere nearby either.

 

The next day Jonesy had started a letter writing marathon. He had Mose deliver a letter to every stop he made and made sure that from there, they were passed on to other drivers down the line. Letters went out to every town, settlement and wide place in the road for a hundred mile radius around Porterville, Kansas.

 

T

hat was five days ago. No answers had come back yet. Andy shoved the folded letter in his shirt pocket and jumped down from the paddock gate. He swiped a hand under his eyes to wipe away the telltale wetness, turned and headed toward the house.

 

It was dusk, and it was getting too dark to see anyway. Lately Andy had taken to coming out here after supper and sitting to watch the road. Twice in the last week he had stood up on the fence because he had seen a rider in the distance, but both times it turned out to be Mort Corey come out to see if there was any news. Mort, like Andy, had developed a new after dinner ritual. His was to ride twelve miles out to the Sherman ranch, have a cup of coffee, shoot the breeze and ride back home.

 

A dejected Andy shuffled back towards the lights of the house dragging his heart in the dirt. Slim came out of the barn carrying a lantern and met Andy in the middle of the yard in front of the house.

 

“Almost time to hit the sack, pardner.”

 

Andy’s chin was on his chest, “Yeah.”

 

Slim stopped and stooped down in front of the boy and set the lantern on the ground. He wrapped his big hands around both of the boy’s arms and looked him in the eye, “Andy, I know how you feel. Believe me, I’m as worried as you are. I can’t really say anything to make you feel any better, but I want you to know you’re not alone.”

 

The lump in Andy’s throat grew exponentially and the floodgates opened. He lunged toward his big brother and wrapped both arms around Slim’s neck. “I’m sorry, Slim, I just miss him.”

 

Slim held him close and rubbed circles on the boy’s back. “I know, Andy. Me too.” Slim couldn’t say anything else, so he just held on. If the truth were known, he felt like crying too, but since he knew that would upset Andy more, he decided the more practical thing to do was to carry on as if all was normal. Well, not normal, but as if he expected Jess back any minute. He had kept up the chores and the repairs, with less vigor than usual, but he had made a good show of normality for the boy, but in the back of his mind, he was contemplating the very real possibility that he may have to hire some help. That could wait for now. It had to wait. He couldn't think about that now.

 

After a moment, Andy stood back up straight and wiped his eyes on his sleeves. Slim stood, picked up his lantern, and with his arm around Andy’s shoulders, they both walked to the house. In the darkness they couldn’t see in the shadows of the porch, but they could hear Jonesy. He was muttering and rocking his chair on its back legs and letting it bump against the house.

 

Since the last telegram from Porterville, Jonesy had developed his own peculiar set of rituals. He cooked every meal as if he were cooking for four instead of three. Every evening he set Jess’ place at the table as if he expected Jess to walk in, hang up his hat, sit down and start eating with both hands. Slim and Andy never said a word. They each had their own way of coping.

 

As Slim drew closer, he could see that Jonesy was shelling peas and throwing the husks violently into a bucket on the floor. “Andy, I left that last piece of pie on the table for you iffen you want it.”

 

“Thanks, Jonesy, but I think I’ll go on to bed.” He looked from his brother to Jonesy and back again. “G’night”

 

“Goodnight, boy.”

“Goodnight, Andy.” Slim and Jonesy had spoken at the same time. Andy reached for the doorknob, but stopped and turned around. He looked back out toward the road, trying to see through the darkness for any sign. Finding none, he turned back to the door, opened it and went inside. He closed it softly behind him with a quiet click.

 

Slim sat on the porch rail and swung one leg up to rest it on the rough wooden beam. “Reckon I’ll go out and cut a Christmas tree tomorrow.”

 

“Take the boy with you, Slim. Should be good for him.”

 

“I will, Jonesy.” Slim crossed his arms and put his hands under his armpits to warm them. Even with his leather gloves, the air was chilly. “What do you think, Jonesy?”

 

“About Jess?”

 

Slim didn’t answer, just gave a quick nod.

 

“Well, Slim, I reckon if there was anyway on God’s green earth that Jess could be home right now, he’d be here. He ain’t one to disappoint Andy and you know he’d rather be here than…wherever he is right now.”

 

“I know. “ Slim swung his leg down and rocked forward with his arms braced on the crossbar. “He also knows I’ll kill him if he…” He didn’t finish the sentence. After a moment he continued, “Well, think I’ll turn in too. Don’t stay up too late. You got Christmas Eve cookin’ to do tomorrow. You know Mort's comin’ don’t ya?”

 

“Yeah, don’t worry, Slim, everything’s gonna be fine.”

 

Slim knew that Jonesy wasn’t just talking about tomorrow’s dinner. He stood up, brushed off the seat of his pants, and stepped toward the door. He looked down at his friend affectionately. “Goodnight, Jonesy.”

 

“Night, Slim”

 

***

 

J

ess couldn’t remember the last time he had been so tired. The heavy blanket of exhaustion had settled on him and weighed him down in the saddle to where he couldn’t sit up straight. He hadn’t seen another soul in over three days, and could only guess at what the date actually was. He figured it was near enough to Christmas that he shouldn’t -- he couldn’t -- stop. He had ridden all day and all night the night before, and again all day today. He had dozed off and on in the saddle and had woken with a start several times. Each time he fixed his position in relation to home, pointed his horse in the right direction and plodded on. After a few hours of nodding off and jerking awake, Jess finally fell into a deep sleep.

 

Jess had slept in the saddle before. Years of riding trail had left him with certain skills that he’d never shaken. He could eat jerky for days on end, sleep on hard rocky ground and wake at the breaking of a twig. He could ride through storms so fierce they’d make most people dive under the bed. The skill that served him well this night was sleeping sitting up, and not falling off. Traveler had been with him for all of that, and stood him in good stead tonight. The big bay knew where he was going. They were close enough to Laramie now that he could smell it. The familiar south trail was as welcoming as an old friend and Traveler knew that at the end of it was a warm stable and fresh hay and oats. He plodded on steadily and determined as if knowing that the man on his back was counting on him to get them both home.

 

The lights of Laramie glowed at the bottom of the twisting road that led into town from the south. Traveler stepped carefully in the dark, and made his way through the quiet streets, attracting only the occasional glance from passersby. Traveler had been to Laramie hundreds of times, and lots of those times he had pulled up directly in front of Mort Corey’s office. Out of habit, that’s where he headed.

 

Mort Corey was just finishing a late supper at Maudie’s Café. He’d eaten dinner at the Sherman’s place that afternoon, but went for a late supper before bed anyway. He stepped out onto the boardwalk and rubbed his hands over his too full belly. Glancing up the street, he noticed a familiar outline against the big lighted window of the saloon across the street. A big bay horse with a man slumped in the saddle.

 

Mort stepped off the boardwalk and into the muddy street, tossing away the toothpick he’d held in his lips.

 

He walked up to the now still horse and craned his neck to try to see the man up top. “Jess?” He touched the leg nearest to him. “Jess, is that you?”

 

Hearing his name being called as if from a great distance, Jess raised his head and looked blearily around. His blue eyes settled on the figure standing on the ground just below him.

 

Mort’s face broke into a wide grin. “Boy, you sure are a sight for sore eyes.” He slapped Jess’ knee. “We’ve all been plumb worried to death about you.”

 

“Howdy, Mort.” Jess managed. “Long time, no see.” He grinned in the dark.

 

“Where you been, Jess? Slim and Andy have been worried sick.”

 

“You mind if I tell you about it some other time, Mort? Right now I just wanna go home.”

 

“Sure.” Mort took off his hat and swiped his hand through his gray hair. “Sure, Jess. I understand. They’ll be mighty glad to see you. If you’ll wait a minute, I’ll ride with you.”

 

Jess shook his head. “No, Mort. I want to go alone.”

 

“But, Jess, you look…”

 

“It’s alright, Mort. I’m fine. I’m just tired, but that won’t stop me from getting home tonight.” His deep voice betrayed the tiredness that was hidden on his face by darkness.

 

Mort smiled up at Jess. “I’ll just bet it won’t.” He returned his hat to his head. “Alright, Jess, you go on. And take it easy, huh?”

 

“You bet, Mort.” Jess prodded Traveler gently and started off again with renewed energy. He was only twelve more miles from home. After a few steps, he pulled up and turned in the saddle, “Say, Mort. What day is it?”

 

“Why it’s Christmas Eve, Jess. Merry Christmas.”

 

Jess smiled. He’d made it after all. “Merry Christmas, Mort.”

 

Jess prodded Traveler one more time and turned west toward home. Outside of the lights of town, the trail was blacker than the bottom of a well. There was no moon so the going was slow. Traveler took the familiar trail with care, needing no guidance from Jess.

 

Not wanting to fall asleep again, Jess turned his thoughts to the first time he’d ridden this trail out toward the turn off to Baxter’s Ridge. The day he rode into, and out of Laramie, in a big hurry. The day his life had changed.

 

He had found his new life that day. He had put away the old endless days on a trail that lead nowhere without so much as a glance back. Oh, the old days caught up with him sometimes. He’d left sometimes, but he’d always come back. It took him awhile to learn that he could count on Slim to stand by him, to help him out of any jam. At first he didn’t trust that, didn’t trust himself either. It was a gradual, growing process, but he had come to realize that there was nothing that he had done, or could ever do, that would shake Slim’s trust, or undermine Slim’s friendship. The day he understood that, was the day he found peace.

 

Jess didn’t understand what he had done to deserve Slim and Andy and Jonesy and their friendship. After awhile, he stopped trying to figure it out and just concentrated on preserving it. Andy was as much his little brother as if he’d been born on that run-down old farm in Texas right along with Jess. And Jonesy…well, Jonesy was just Jonesy. The first few weeks with Jonesy were a little rocky. The old man didn’t trust easily. But once you earned his trust, his loyalty was unassailable, and Jess treasured it.

 

Sometimes he felt like he’d brought nothing but trouble to his new home. He had left to protect them more than once. Slim had always convinced him to come back. Whatever trouble he brought, be it from his past, or in the present, they would stand against it together. So far, things were working out just fine.

 

Jess smiled to himself and sat a little straighter in the saddle. The twelve miles to the ranch never seemed this long before. He must have dozed off again because the next thing he knew, the steady rocking motion had stopped. He opened his eyes and found himself in a place darker than the trail, with not even stars above him.

 

It took him a minute to realize that he was in the barn at home. The familiar smells enveloped him like a comfortable blanket. Leather, hay, horses, liniment. He took a deep breath and swung down from the saddle. He patted Traveler’s neck and then began pulling off the saddle and harness.

 

After rubbing his horse down and giving him some fresh hay and oats, Jess took his lantern and made his way to the dark house. The front window was closed and the curtain drawn. It was cold out, but not freezing. There was a faint warm glow of light from the fireplace inside. Jess stepped up on the porch and quietly opened the door. The house was quiet. Both of the front bedroom doors were closed.

 

It must have been after midnight he guessed. Curiosity overtook him and he quietly stepped over to the mantle and held the lantern up to the clock. Twelve o-nine. Merry Christmas.

 

Swinging the lantern toward the kitchen, he saw a Christmas tree blocking part of the passage to the kitchen where the steps to the roof stood. It was a little taller than he was and had ornaments hanging from every branch. The ornaments were homemade, some looked very old, some newer. There were pinecones and cinnamon sticks tied with ribbon. There were several carved wooden figures, mostly of people, but some of horses, dogs, birds and what looked like reindeer. He reached out and touched an orange with cloves stuck into it. It was rough, but very aromatic. The entire thing was draped in a rope of popcorn and cranberries. Jess stood looking for a few minutes. He hadn’t seen a Christmas tree, at least not up close, in probably eight or nine years.

 

The bone-deep weariness was beginning to overtake him again. He lowered the lantern and walked back over to the leather couch in the corner under the window. He’d pull off his boots and spurs before going to bed, so he wouldn’t wake up Slim.

 

Jess sat on the edge of the couch and set the lantern on the floor at his feet. He pulled one leg up and yanked off his boot, leaving his sock on. The other one came off as well. As if the effort was too much, Jess slumped forward and closed his eyes. After a minute, he laid down and was able to swing one leg up onto the couch before falling asleep.

 

J

onesy had heard a noise in the living room. In that half-awake half-asleep haze he assumed it must be Santa Clause since he’d just been dreaming about that very thing. A second thump brought him out of the haze and he was fully awake in an instant. He reached over and raised the wick of the oil lamp on his bedside table, swung his feet down and slipped them into his slippers by the bed. He stood up and cautiously and quietly made his way to the door. He opened the door and peered out. He could see part of the dining room from the door, but wasn’t able to see into the living room past the Christmas tree.

 

He quietly stepped out and closed the door behind him. Holding the lamp high, Jonesy tip-toed out to the living room. He scanned the room, comfortable with all the familiar shapes and shadows. Finally his gaze rested on the light colored lump on the couch across the room. Instantly he knew who it was and was not afraid. He hurried over to the couch and his eyes drifted over Jess from head to toe, holding the lamp high over him.

 

Jess was sprawled on the couch, one foot on the floor, one arm flung over his head. He was deeply asleep and breathing noisily. Jonesy looked for blood and not finding any, relaxed and set the lamp down. He moved over to the chest in the corner behind the front door and pulled down a big woolen blanket. He returned to Jess, bent down and raised that one foot to the couch, and then covered him with the soft brown blanket.

 

The sudden comfort and warmth made Jess stir. He grunted softly and turned on his side, settling in to a more comfortable position. Jonesy smiled, nodded and, picking up his lamp, turned to go.

 

Jonesy couldn’t have been happier if it were Christmas every day. Jess had kept his promise to Andy, and nothing could be better than that. Oh, it looked like Jess had paid dearly to keep that promise. He’d lost about ten pounds, the dark circles under his eyes were noticeable even in the dim light and the old rag tied around his left arm signaled a wound, probably the gunshot from the prisoner escaping.

 

Jess would have a long and interesting story to tell, but tomorrow morning, no one in this house was going to be happier than Jonesy was right now, just knowing that his family was all under one roof again.





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