Cord Bannister tried to force his eyes to pierce the veil of darkness that surrounded him and spy who, or what, had summoned him. He held himself as still as he possibly could, but his shivering body wouldn’t allow him the luxury of being motionless.
Had he heard a voice calling out to him, or had he imagined it? He had heard of men who wandered in the wilderness and followed mirages; perhaps he was hallucinating from the cold. For a long moment he held his tongue, trying to determine what was true and what was imagined. Finally, he quietly responded, “Whose there?”
After a long moment of silence, he exhaled slowly. There had been no ghost haunting him. It was the wind, or perhaps the cold, but there was no response to his question. Wanting to be satisfied that he was alone, he turned his face from the imagined spook and stepped forward again. His foot slipped on an unseen rock, and he fell forward, landing in a pile of broken branches, causing them to snap and scrape against his coat. At that moment, the voice spoke to him again, frail and desperate, “Come to me!”
Not able to dismiss the voice, he swallowed a gulp of air and said, “Who said that? I’m warning you, I’m armed!” His hand dropped to his gun, but his cold fingers couldn’t grasp the grips on his pistol.
“Please,” the voice responded. “Please come to me. I need help.”
“Who are you,” he demanded, but no response came to him. After a moment, he cautiously made his way around the tangle of brush and saw a white shape against the night sky. The shape was hovering over the ground, just at eye level, and was beckoning for him to come closer.
The fear he experienced seemed to warm him and he was able to get his pistol from its holster. The shape continued to hover above the ground and seemed to expand as he was watching it.
The dreadful moan came to him again, and this time he knew it was coming from the ghostly appearance in front of him. The moan overwhelmed what strength he had left and he dropped the gun into the snow, which he stared at stupidly.
“Come to me,” the ghost beckoned him.
With quivering knees, he slowly obeyed the spirit and pressed into the snow, closer to the floating ghost. When he was within five feet of the ghost, he could see that the shape was not a spirit at all, but the white canvass from a covered wagon. The blowing snow had practically covered the wagon, leaving the canvass flapping in the wind. Relieved beyond expression, he continued to move closer to the wagon and asked, “Who are you?”
A woman’s voice pierced the night with a shrill scream of agony, causing his fears to flood over him again. Holding his nerves as steady as he could make them, he lifted the canvass flaps and tried to look into the dark interior.
He couldn’t make out any shapes, but he could smell blood and sweat, and asked again, “Who are you? What’s wrong?”
He could make out some movement of a head and realized that a woman was lying in the wagon and was covered with blankets. “Come to me,” she repeated with a faltering voice. “I need your help.”
Through gasps of pain she replied, “I’m having a baby, and I’m in a bad way.”
“Oh.” He had no other response. In fact, the idea occurred to him to return to the frozen Texas wilderness for some measure of comfort, but the woman’s plea was stirring sympathy in him. “How can I help you?”
“Please, light the lamp so I can see what’s wrong.”
He fumbled in his pocket for a match, but his numb fingers wouldn’t work. Finally, he was able to force them to grasp a match and he struck it against the wooden boards of the wagon.
The flame was so bright that it offended his eyes at first, causing him to blink. And then he saw the pitiful woman and the fear in her eyes. He spotted the lamp and held the match to the wick. Soon, the entire wagon was bathed in light.
The woman held a bloody hand toward him, “Please come in and help me,” she said with a quivering voice. “This ain’t right what’s happening with the baby. It ain’t coming out right.”
“But ma’am,” he objected. “I don’t know anything about women, or babies, or anything of the sort.”
“You are my only hope.”
“Gosh, ma’am, I don’t even have a sister. I wouldn’t know what to do.” He glanced around. “Besides, your husband will be along shortly, I reckon, and I’ll pay hell for being caught with you.”
“Please,” she pleaded. “My baby is dying.”
He frowned and closed his eyes, and then resigned to the situation and climbed into the wagon. She pulled on her blanket and exposed her bare skin, which caused him to revolt.
“Ma’am, please, this ain’t my place, and you ain’t my wife.”
“What is your name,” she asked between gasps.
“Cord. Cord Bannister.”
“Mr. Bannister,” she began. “My name is Eve Barrett.” She closed her eyes in pain.
Not knowing what to do, he replied shyly, “Howdy do, Mrs. Barrett.”
“Three days ago, my husband left to chase after his hosses, which done run away from us. I haven’t seen him since, and I reckon he is lost to the storm, and the good Lord has taken him from me.” She grimaced in pain again. “I’ve been in labor for two days, and I’m about spent. I’m bone weary, and if I die, my baby will die also. Please help me.”
“What can I do?”
“You’ll need to cut the baby out. He’s breech, I tell you. The baby is breech.”
“Cut it out!” he exclaimed in horrer. “Tarnation, woman!”
“You have to do it, Mr. Bannister. We’ll both die if’n as how you don’t do it.”
He protested with his entire being. “There ain’t no way no how. I don’t know the first thing about cutting out a baby. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Her eyes were burning into him. “Just cut me here,” she was pointed to the bottom portion of the bulge on her extended belly. “Just do it quick like. If you’re quick like, we might both live.”
His hands were shaking and his voice was faltering. “I can’t do it. I don’t know how.” But his words were wasted. Her eyes rolled into her head and she either fainted or died.
Cussing like a sailor, he fumbled in the unfamiliar wagon and found a butcher knife in a small wooden box. He then found a crock jug of liquor and promptly uncorked it. Lifting it to his lips, he pulled hard from the jug, and then poured a small amount on Eve’s stomach. He then stretched the blade over her skin and closed his eyes. “Dog gone I wish I’d been shot robbin’ that bank.”
Mary Ellen stepped from the warmth and comfort of her home and made her way along the path that led from her house to the Salt Fork of the Brazos River. The night was dark, and the snow had stopped falling, but the wind was still howling. She was fully clothed, and was wearing her buffalo skin coat.
Having thought the idea through completely, she decided it would be better for Bart if she didn’t appear to be a suicide. She wanted to make it look as though she simply got lost and then died of exposure, that way Millicent Scott wouldn’t be able to gossip about her death. Remarkably, she was at peace with her decision. It was a very logical conclusion for her that this was the only solution to her problems. Besides, she reasoned, death was not so bad. Bart would be upset for a few days, but he could find another wife pretty quickly.
Of course, a new family had moved into the old Jackson homestead. They had a daughter who was somewhat pretty and very sensible. She had noticed that Bart had smiled at her when she was introduced to him. Lovina Hardy. That was her name.
Mary Ellen thought about that name for a moment, and then said it out loud, “Lovina Barrett.” She frowned and then said, “Mrs. Lovina Barrett.” The words didn’t sound as nice as Mary Ellen Barrett, but that was a small concession for Bart’s happiness. She was younger and fit, and had good child bearing hips. She would do fine.
She pressed the tears out of her eyes. “Remember,” she said. “You’re doing this for Bart, not yourself.”
She paused a moment when she reached the edge of the cotton wood trees and listened for the sound of the posse returning, but she heard nothing. “Well,” she smiled to herself. “This is a good time to die.”
The night had been a blur. One moment Cord Bannister was simply a fugitive from the law, the next he was a surgeon, trying to find enough thread to sew a woman’s belly back together. The baby had cried furiously at him for rudely interrupting his journey of birth, but had settled down when Cord clumsily wrapped a blanket around the baby, making it look like the burritos Senorita Fuentes made with beans and cheese.
After a few minutes, Eve stirred and opened her eyes. Soon, a smile washed across her face and for a moment her dry, tanned face looked pretty. She held the baby close and allowed it to nurse. Cord immediately tried to leave, but he was so busy sewing the stitches on the incision that he wasn’t allowed the luxury of modesty.
Over the course of the next hour, Eve instructed Cord on how to care for her son, and instructed him that the baby was to be named after his father, Dale, and after his emergency physician, Cord. So, on the evening of December 24, 1873, Dale Cord Conley was born in a covered wagon somewhere near the Salt Fork, and somewhere near Justice, Texas.
Despite his best efforts, Eve succumbed to her wounds early on Christmas morning, but she died holding her newborn son, which gave her peace. Cord buried Eve beside the wagon while the baby slept, and then spent a few minutes digging through the wagon for what few supplies could be had.
He found an old red coat that Dale Conley must have worn during the Civil War that was bright red, indicating that he was an artillery soldier. The coat was a miserable color for hiding in the snowy wilderness of Texas, but Cord decided that he was no longer hiding from the posse, and that he would find them and surrender as soon as possible.
He wrapped his warm buffalo coat around baby Dale and put on the red artillery coat for himself. The sky was clearing when he stepped out on his return trip to Justice, and the sun threatened to shine a modest warmth upon them for their journey.
After several hours of walking, he found an old cabin near the river and stepped inside to warm some milk for the baby. In the daylight, he was appalled at how dirty the baby was, having never been properly cared for in the wagon. He heated some water in an old pot and searched until he found a bucket of lime in the barn. He mixed the lime and water together, hoping it would make a type of soap, but when he placed his hands in the mixture, he felt his skin burning, and saw how the red sleeves of the old coat had bleached white where the lime touched it, so he abandoned the idea of bathing Baby Dale. Instead, he fed him by allowing him to suckle canned milk from an old glove he’d found in the wagon. Once the baby was fed, he wrapped him up like a burrito, and they started out again. If he kept up a good pace, he might make it to Justice by nightfall.
Mary Ellen was frustrated. First, she was alive. Second, she couldn’t figure out how to properly die. She wanted to freeze to death, but while wearing her coat, she simply didn’t get cold enough. She wanted to discard the coat, but still wanted the death to look natural, so her body must be recovered properly clothed.
As she sat on the river bank and watched the sun climb into the afternoon sky, she thought about how hungry she was, and then she remembered that she hadn’t prepared anything for Bart to eat should he return today from the manhunt. She contemplated returning to the house and putting a stew together for him, but decided that he would be somewhat distraught over the tragic loss of his wife and might not want to eat supper.
What she needed to do was end her life quickly. If she fell into the river, she might be too cold and wet to properly recover. With a nod of her head, she determined that she was going to accidentally fall into the river, and the sooner the better.
She approached the water’s edge and watched for several minutes as the river gently rolled past her. She pursed her lips together in anticipation of the cold shock of the water and then frowned at herself. “Darn!” She said to herself. “I should have left a note at the house that said, ‘Please meet me by the river. I have something important to show you, signed, Millicent Scott.’” She nodded to herself. Yep, that would certainly fix her wagon, to be put in jail for murdering the sheriff’s wife.
But, she would have to return to the house and write the note, and then she would warm up. While she was there, she would go ahead and fix the stew, just in case. But, if she did that, the posse would return and she would lose her opportunity to die as a Christmas present. No, it would have to be now or never.
“I suppose,” she reasoned to herself. “That some fitting words should be spoken for this solemn occasion, seein' as how God ain't seen fit to send me a Santa with a baby.” She closed her eyes and said, “Father God, into your hands I release my spirit. Please accept my soul, even though I ain’t deservin’ of Your kindness. Please help my husband to discover that young girl livin’ at the Jackson homestead. She might not be the pertiest woman, but she does have good hips, and that there is worth a pound of salt.”
A tear formed in her eyes and she brushed it away carelessly. She lifted her foot to step into the river when she heard a man singing, Away in a Manger.
She smiled warmly and said, “Thank you, Father. I can already hear the angels singin’ as they welcome me to eternity.” The song was growing louder and in a desire to actually see the angels singing, she opened her eyes and what she saw caused her to gasp.
“Oh my,” was all she could say due to the greatest shock she’d ever witnessed. For out of the trees lining the river, Santa Claus emerged and stumbling over a root, plunged head first into the river. For a moment, the world stopped moving, and Mary Ellen stared in complete shock of what she’d witnessed.
Suddenly, Santa’s head emerged from the river and he gasped loudly as he tried to breathe through the shockingly cold water. He found his footing and stood, discovering that the water was only knee deep. He was holding tightly to a small bundle, which immediately began to cry like an infant.
“Tarnation!” he bellowed as he splashed through the river and onto the river bank only a few feet from where Mary Ellen stood. He had not seen her standing there, and when he turned, their eyes met. “I’m mighty beholding to you if you’d spare this child.”
Mary Ellen’s eyes fell to the bundle in his arms and realized that he was holding a very mad baby boy in his arms. The man pressed the baby into her hands and then fell face first into the snowy river bank, his red coat staining the snow around him.
One week later, the entire town of Justice gathered to pay their respects for Cord Bannister as he was laid to rest. Reverend Whitaker delivered a powerful sermon about the destructive nature of sin, and the great black eternity of facing God without the saving knowledge of Christ. Amidst several amens, he cleared his throat and said, “I know and appreciate that Cord was a sinful man, and that his ways were deep and dark. But in his last moments of life, he reformed his ways and saved a small child who would have died had it not been for Mr. Bannister’s gallant actions. Sadly, Cord Bannister died of pneumonia shortly after his act of heroism, thereby saving the town of Justice a court hearing, something for which we are all grateful. Normally, we would be condemning such a man as Cord Bannister, but today we are honoring him. I’m proud to point out that he selflessly devoted the remainder of his days to protecting an innocent life, a life that is now in the capable hands of Sheriff Barrett’s family. I know that God’s grace will guide them and that there will be long days of prosperity in their generosity of taking in a child and raising him as their own. I suspect that this child will be cared for as if he were born into their loving home.”
“Amen,” the crowd responded, and a procession was formed to escort Cord Bannister to the cemetery at the top of the hill. Mary Ellen walked along behind the pall-bearers, humming gently to her new son, and realized that second chances are the true meaning of Christmas.