Christmas at the Bar T
(A Ranch Days story)
By Maz McCoy
The bunk house was filled with the smell of coffee, wood smoke, sweaty socks and equally malodorous men. Despite the card game, which seemed to have been going on for hours, the room was unusually quiet. Jeff Collins surveyed the room over the top of his cards. Hannibal Heyes sat on his bunk flicking through the pages of a book but apparently not taking in a word of what passed his eyes. Jed Curry was trying his best to darn a grey sock. It had once been a white sock and was now taking on flecks of red every time Jed stabbed himself with the needle. Gerrard was writing a letter to the sweetheart he claimed to have ‘back home’ except nobody had managed to fathom exactly where that was. He crossed out a line. It would probably be spring by the time he finished it. Nathan lay on his bunk, hands behind his head as he stared at the ceiling, his thoughts no doubt on a certain lady in town he hadn’t seen since the snow fell three weeks ago. Jeff sighed. There was someone in town he’d like to see again too. Someone he had a present for, wrapped with a red bow, tucked away in his desk drawer and just waiting for the right time to…
“You gonna call or what?” Bill asked.
“Guess your mind ain’t on the game, is it?”
Jeff shook his head and threw down his hand.
“Sorry, Bill, can’t seem to concentrate.”
“I know the feeling.” Bill threw in his cards and gathered the pack together. “That time of year again.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“My Ma used to make us all cookies and we’d stay up late on Christmas Eve telling tall stories.” He sat back in his chair as he reminisced. “We might get a new shirt in the morning and my Pa usually made us all something. He was a good carpenter. My little brother took after him. Made all the furniture for his new house.” Bill smiled and looked up at the Boss. “How ‘bout you? What did you do as a kid?”
“What most folks did I guess? Went to church, sang hymns, wondered if we might get some candy.”
“My Ma used to spend days baking,” Nathan added, as he sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bunk. “The house would be filled with the smell of bread, molasses, apple pies, seemed like she never stopped. In the morning we all had a shiny new penny in our sock.”
Gerrard put down his letter.
“My Ma always made a plum pudding, weeks ahead of time. It used to sit there in the pot sorta ageing until it was ready to eat.” He smiled. “It sure was worth the wait.”
“All us kids would help decorate the house,” Bill added as he stood up and headed to the stove. “We’d be sent out to find pine cones, holly, nuts and berries.” He poured himself a cup of coffee. “I used to think it was just to get us outta the house so my folks could have a bitta peace but it sure looked pretty when we’d finished. Real nice smell too.”
Nathan turned to Heyes and Jed.
“How ‘bout you two? What d’you do at Christmas?”
Neither boy spoke. Jed looked quickly at Heyes then turned away.
“The usual,” Heyes told them before looking back at his book.
“Yeah, but what was that?” Gerrard asked.
“What y’all said.”
“Yeah, but what?”
“Leave it, Gerrard,” Jeff suggested but the man wouldn’t.
“Come on, Heyes, what d’you do at Christmas? You had brothers and sisters right? What d’you do with your folks?”
Neither boy replied. “Jed?”
“Why, Boss? Come on. What is it a secret? Jed? Heyes?”
Jed stood up, glaring at Gerrard.
“ALL RIGHT! WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? D’YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT WE DID BEFORE THEY WERE SLAUGHTERD OR AFTER? COS IT SURE WASN’T ANY FUN ONCE THEY WERE DEAD!” Without a glance back he headed for the door, threw it open and stormed out.
Gerrard looked at Heyes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…I mean I forgot, I was just…Oh sheesh, Heyes, I’m sorry.”
Heyes put down his book and slid down from his bunk.
“It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean anything.” He picked up his coat and shrugged it on. “It’s just…He misses ‘em.”
“And so do you.”
Heyes’ brown eyes met Jeff’s. He could only nod, before picking up Jed’s coat and heading out the door.
“You plannin’ on freezin’ to death?” Heyes asked as he approached Jed. The blond boy sat on the porch steps, shivering. Heyes handed him his coat.
“Thanks.” Jed quickly shrugged it on and Heyes sat down beside him.
“He didn’t mean anything. You know what he’s like.”
“I know. I’ll apologise, okay?”
“I miss ‘em too.”
The accusation in Jed’s tone surprised Heyes.
“Of course I do.”
“Sometimes I wonder, Heyes. You don’t talk about ‘em. You don’t talk about what happened.”
“No point talking about that. Nothing will change that day. Nothing will bring them back.”
“But it keeps them alive; least it does to me.” Jed sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand as he turned away from his friend. Heyes looked at his friend’s back. The coat Jed wore swamped him. He was still so young despite all they’d been through.
“I miss them every day. I always will, but I can’t…” Heyes stood up and took a step towards the door. He swallowed. “You best come back inside.”
“Where’s Jed?” Marty asked when Heyes entered the bunk house.
“Just outside.” He stomped the ice off his boots and watched as Marty pulled off his own coat.
“Best go get him.”
“He’s coming in.”
“Good cos we got a surprise for y’all.” Heyes’ eyes narrowed as Marty turned back to the kitchen. Behind Heyes the door opened and a cold blast of air announced Jed’s return.
“What’s going on?” he asked in a whisper.
“I don’t know. Marty says he has a surprise for us.
“What you gonna do Marty?” Nathan called out. “Sing us a song, ‘cos that’s not…” Nathan stopped talking when Henry, the cook, walked into the room carrying a tray of steaming food. Behind him Marty carried a pile of small boxes, each tied with string. Henry set the tray down on the quickly cleared table.
“We got beans, salt pork and berry pie. Marty shot us a turkey and I have cookies baking in the oven and you’re all too late ‘cos I already licked the spoon!”
“We’ve got a present for all of ya,” Marty announced. “Courtesy of two very fine ladies in town and our own Mister Culver.”
Nathan and Jeff exchanged a look before shooting a glare at Marty. The older man smiled.
“Yes boys, I’ve been meeting your pretty gals in secret.”
“You wanna explain that Marty?” Nathan bristled and Marty chuckled.
“Miss Eldon and Miss Tanner, approached me a few weeks back and asked if I might carry a gift or two out here. I obliged.” He held out two brown paper parcels tied with string and a paper tag. Nathan took them, read the names on the tags and handed one to Jeff.
Stunned, the ranch foreman sat down and studied the package. Rosalind had tied the string with her own fair hand. She’d been thinking of him when she’d wrapped it. Her delicate writing spelled out his name. He smiled. He wondered what she’d bought for him.
“You gonna open it, Boss or what?”
Jeff looked up at Nathan.
“When I’m alone, I reckon.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Mister Culver asked those same two ladies to get us all something to open on Christmas day.” Enjoying his role, Marty handed a package to Bill. “Happy Christmas, you ol’ coot.”
Laughing, Bill took the parcel. Gerrard received his next and sank onto his bunk before ripping off the paper. Marty stood in front of Jed, holding out a gift.
“This is for you, Jed.” The boy just looked at it. “Go on, son. Take it.”
“We don’t…I mean I…” Jed looked at his feet.
“What is it?”
“We don’t celebrate anymore.”
Marty looked up to see Heyes looking at him.
“Get over here.”
Heyes did as asked.
“That right? You two don’t celebrate Christmas anymore?”
“Hasn’t been much to celebrate,” Heyes stated.
“Well that’s where you’re wrong, Heyes.” Marty met the boy’s gaze. “Christmas is a special time. A time to give thanks for all you have and for thanking others. For remembering why you go to Church on Sunday and for being with the folks you care about and who care about you. Now you may not have any kin to be with but you got us. So don’t tell me you two don’t have anything to be celebrating. You’re alive. That in itself is a miracle the way you too handle cattle. So…” He held out a gift to each boy. “Happy Christmas, boys.”
Jed looked at Heyes.
Heyes looked at Jed.
“I reckon he’s right, Han.”
“Yeah, I reckon he is.” He took the gift from Marty, just as Gerrard exclaimed…
“SOCKS! Why do I always get socks?”
Happy Christmas dear Readers.