I present to you the first part of a two part story, A Christmas Baby.
Dale Conley, exhausted and hungry, returned to his wagon an hour after sundown, defeat apparent in his eyes. Victoria, his wife, swollen with child, raised herself to a sitting position and quietly observed his face when he peeked through the curtain separating her from the cold night air. He had bad news.
“I chased them blamed horses fer more than three miles before darkness forced me back.” He removed his sweaty hat and slapped it against his leg, forcing a cloud of dust to erupt around him. “I almost had them onct, when they were down by that sandy bottomed river down yonder, but they pulled away as I reached for the rope. How on Earth does four horses, who are tied together, mind you, run down through that brush without getting’ tangled up in sompthin? I beg you to tell me.”
Victoria sat quietly and listened to her husband as he spilled his frustrating news into the small wagon. She knew better than to interrupt him, and she knew he wasn’t asking questions for her to answer him back.
“Why, I oughta…” He growled. “Why, I oughta return to Justice and wring that drover’s neck what sold me them horses. They was probably trained to run off the first chance they got and return home.” He slapped his leg again, producing a second dust cloud. “I’m a gonna kill him. That’s what I’ll do.” He stood and stared at his wife a moment before bellowing, “Well, what? Don’t you have anything to say?”
Victoria curled her lips into a frown and shook her head slowly. “No, I ain’t got nuthin’ to say. You’re gonna do what you see fit, and that’s all.”
“Durn right.” He looked at the fire, which was now burned to coals. “Dad blamed woman! Git out here and fix mah supper. Cain’t you see that I’m all tuckered out from chasin’ them horses?”
Without a word, Victoria rolled onto her knees and crawled from the wagon onto the dusty prairie. She stood a moment and tried to arch her back, but the baby was too much for her small frame, and she placed a hand on her aching lower back. She sighed inwardly and reached for a black cast iron pot hanging from the sidewall of the wagon. “I got these beans ready; they just need some heatin’. Would you mind addin’ some wood to the fire? It’s hard for me to crawl under the wagon for the wood.”
Dale growled in protest, but reached for the closest limb and began to break it into smaller pieces. Once he had enough limbs broken, he tossed them onto the coals and sat on the ground near the fire. “Mercy, my dogs are barkin’. It’s been a long time since I walked that fer.” He paused in thought as he rubbed his feet through his boots. “In fact, it was the War Betwixt the States that I last walked that fur. And that did us no good. Then blamed Blue Bellies routed us right out of Virginia, but Hood’s Texas Brigade made ‘em earn it. Why, if we hadn’t of been forced into those Carolina hills, why, we’d of give ‘em what fer!” He pulled a pipe from his pocket and held a lit match to the bowl, puffing small mouths of smoke with each drawl. “I walked all o’er Virginia, from Fredericksburg, to Gettysburg, to the Wilderness, and down to Appomattox Court House.” He puffed a moment on his pipe. “O’ course, I had to get back home after the surrender. That’s a powerful long trip back to Texas.”
Before he could finish his well rehearsed speech, Victoria brought a plate of beans and a round, flat, cold biscuit to him. He accepted them and lifted his boot, which she received in the air and tugged on until it slipped from his bare foot. Once his boots were stacked neatly against the wagon wheels, she returned to the fire, poured a cup of scalding black coffee, grounds and all, into a small blue enameled cup and handed it to her husband. He sipped quietly on the coffee and gulped his beans, almost without breath. Once finished with his supper, he said, “Well, sir, I’m gonna hit tha hay. Get me up early, ‘cause I need ta track those blamed horses, even if I have ta walk all the way back to Justice.” He stopped a moment and examined the cloudy night. “It feels like snow ta me. If it snows, we might ne’er get them horses back. Well, sir, I’m off ta bed. Don’t ferget ta wake me early. Specially if’n it starts ta snow, ‘cuase I gotta get them horses back.” With that, he crawled into the wagon and buried beneath the blankets, leaving Victoria to tend the fire and secure the camp for the night.
Mary Ellen Barrett spooned a dollop of thick corn meal mush into a bowl and set it gently in front of her husband, who eagerly dipped his spoon into the steaming cereal. “Would you care for another cup of coffee, Bart?”
He glanced at her and said, “What I want is for you to sit down with me and enjoy your breakfast.”
She exhaled loudly and sat next to him on the narrow bench. “How’s your breakfast?”
He smiled warmly. “It’s fine, just fine. You can make mush mighty tasty. I can’t hardly wait until that new snow clears enough for that shipment from A.W. Dunn to come in from Colorado.” He grinned as he added, “The Mother City of West Texas.”
“Mother City, indeed!” huffed Mary Ellen. “It’s more like Dodge City than anything else.”
“Just be glad all the rowdy folk spend their time in Colorado, not here in Justice.”
“I intend on Justice being a place to raise a family, if…” Her voice trailed off.
Bart frowned and quietly sipped his coffee. “If, what?” he asked, gently.
“If we could have a family to raise.” She was unhappy.
“We will have a family. It just ain’t happened yet.” He sipped more coffee. “Just give it some time.”
She picked up a cheese cloth and busied herself wiping her hands. “How much time does it require? We’ve been married for almost four years.”
“When God’s ready.”
“Well, when’s He gonna be ready?” Her voice started to crack, but she pressed her face into the towel and steadied her voice. “When’s He gonna be ready?”
Bart shrugged. “Hard to say.”
“Well, I’m ready. He needs to hurry up.”
Bart set his cup down hard. “Careful,” he scolded. “No need to blaspheme.”
“I didn’t blaspheme,” she shot back at him.
“Maybe not, but ever’ where you spit the grass dies.”
She didn’t respond for several minutes. Finally, she broke the silence. “You don’t know what it’s like to be the only woman without a child.”
“You ain’t the only woman without a child.”
“In the town of Justice I am!” she argued. “There are a dozen families here in town proper, and I’m the only one without a child. It just ain’t right.”
“Well, God’ll see to it, sooner or later.”
“I want Him to see to it sooner than later. It’s humiliatin’ to be the only barren woman around.”
“Would it make you happier if there were other barren women around?” Bart knew he shouldn’t have asked, but it was too late, she was already starting to cry.
She buried her face in the cheese cloth again and gathered her strength. “I just don’t know how to face that Millicent Scott. She’s just so uppity about it all.”
“She’s from the East. That’s how folks are from the East.”
“That’s no excuse. She ought not to be so haughty about our troubles. Why, just yesterday, she was gossipin’ with the prayer group about us…” tears welled in her eyes again. She sighed heavily and tried to straighten her dress. “I just want to have a baby. I’m a plain woman, and I’m not real smart, and I want to honor you by giving you a son.”
"I know," she cut him off. "If only God or Santa would give us a baby."
"I'm not…" He was interrupted by the sound of gunfire echoing through the air. “What the?” He dashed to the door and shoved it open. A man was running at him from across the snow covered street. “Sheriff! Come quick. They’re hittin’ tha bank!”
“What is it?” Mary Ellen pressed in behind him.
Bart grabbed his pistol and shoved it into his pants while pressing his head into his hat. “Someone is robbin’ the bank.”
“The bank?” she questioned. “We’ve only had it for two weeks, and it’s already being robbed?” As she spoke, more gunfire rang in the still morning air and a galloping of hoofs splattered snow across their front doorstep. Bart sprang from the doorway and fired at the three riders as they rode past. One of them hunched over the saddle horn, but stayed on his mount.
Mary Ellen lurched at the loud bark of the pistol and recoiled into the house. “Bart? What’s happenin’ out there?”
“Stay back, Mary Ellen,” he shouted to her. He took careful aim and fired again. “Blasted! They’re gettin’ away.” He returned through the open door and grabbed his buffalo skin coat and a holster. “I’m goin’ after ‘em. Fix me a poke and I’ll be off. Make it enough for three days.” He disappeared into the street.
An hour later, he had a small posse assembled at the livery stables, waiting for him to lead the charge across the frozen Texas prairie. He grabbed his saddle bags and his bed roll from Mary Ellen, who was waiting for him at the front door. “They already have a head start. I cabled Dick Ware, the Ranger in Colorado to meet us on the River. If we don’t catch them within three days, we will return home to regroup and try again.” With those words, he leapt upon Ribka, his horse, and galloped down the short street and into the mid-morning sun.
“Good luck, my love,” she whispered to him as he rounded the bend and disappeared from her sight. When she finished sweeping the dirt floor for the second time that morning, she gathered two wooden buckets, and made her way to the well near the future site of the town square. While drawing water, she glanced across the snow laden street and saw that Millicent Scott was watching her from her husband’s store front window. She stood below a sign that read, Wilfred Scott, Attorney at Law and Physician, and laughed daintily at Mary Ellen as she lifted the heavy bucket of water from the depths of the well. Not willing to relinquish the opportunity to assert her own social status, Millicent stepped from the wooden boardwalk onto the street and walked to the well lifting her long dress in her hands.
“Why, how do you do, Mrs. Barrett?” she asked pleasantly, her Georgia accent adding an air of dignity to her words.
“Good morning, Mrs. Scott. Are you well?” Mary Ellen replied with practiced discipline.
“I am well, indeed. I was observing that you were struggling with those buckets of water. Would you like for me to dispatch my eldest son to your aid, seeing that you have no one to help you?”
Mary Ellen refused to expose her anger to Millicent, but the attitude of her words nearly betrayed her true thoughts. “Mrs. Scott, that won’t be necessary. I’m capable on my own, thank you.” Her face was scarlet and she refused to make eye contact with her opponent.
“How remarkably independent of you, Mrs. Barrett. Most women in your place wouldn’t have the temerity to stand so proudly, knowing they are incomplete.”
She ignored the callused remarks and continued to lift the bucket of water from the well.
"Perhaps," Millicent persisted. "Santa might bring you a baby, seeing that you can't provide one for your husband, who must be worried that he won't have a son to pass on his name."
Mary Ellen pulled the second bucket of water from the well and it slipped from her hands, splashing Millicent across the front of her dress. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Scott. How clumsy of me. Maybe I could use some help after all.” Millicent turned with a dignified, harrumph, and made her way across the street to the safety of her husband’s office.
Mary Ellen, embarrassed beyond belief, carried the buckets of water to her house and collapsed into her rocking chair where she wept bitterly. Why? She pled her case to God. Why must that horrible woman torment me so? She cried until her sorrow abated enough to brood in her chair. Santa? If only it was possible. She pressed her eyes closed and tried to stop the tears. I simply hate that woman. Why must I suffer so? Why would You give her children when I can’t have any at all? Why would You openly bless that treacherous woman while I serve You in humility? Maybe You are punishing me for some of my past sins? But why does my husband have to suffer from my evil heart? If he hadn’t married me, he would have a family and he wouldn’t be laughed at. If he hadn’t gotten stuck with me, he’d be better off. Maybe I don’t deserve to live.
With those ill thoughts, she began to dwell on reflections she should have dismissed. Somehow, the poison of the words she couldn’t speak aloud began to erode at her wavering self esteem and she evaluated whether or not she had the right to live, if shame were her fortune for and evil heart and the future she must embrace.
The three bank robbers barreled across the Texas grass land heading for the broken country that separated the high plains, commonly referred to as the Llano Estacado, and the rolling hills of West Texas. If they could make their way past the Double Mountains, then they could turn and weave their way into Mexico, some 200 miles to the south.
Cord Bannister pulled reign as the three companions crashed through the dense growth of mesquite trees that grew along the edge of the cap rock, mingled with the cedars that dotted the canyon walls which thrust above them. Only when they stopped did he realize his dire mistake—his horse was quivering, and steam poured from his sweat soaked hair. He’d pushed the horses so hard and fast that they would probably die from exposure to the plummeting frigid winter air. “We’d better get off and walk a spell.”
Aubrey, who had been hunched over his saddle horn, slid from his mount and landed with a dull thud in the icy snow. Cord swore at him, but when he didn’t move, kicked him with the toe of his boot. “Get up, you lazy bum.”
Aubrey didn’t respond, so Cord growled under his breath and rolled him over onto his back. He was dead. “Well I’ll be.” He looked up at Pat and grinned. “They got him. I wonder how long he’s been dead?”
Pat, whose face was stark white, replied, “Who knows? He slumped over like that as we rode out of town and I just thought he was hurt.”
“Well, he ain’t hurt no more.” He grabbed Aubrey by the coat collar. “Give me a hand and we’ll drag him underneath that overhang.” He glanced up at Pat, who was staring blankly at him. “Pat? You alright?”
Pat focused his eyes on Cord’s uncaring face and whispered, “No. They got me too.” With the confession he lost his resolve and he, too, collapsed from his steed and landed in a ball near Aubrey’s body.
Cord shook his head. “Well, when it rains it pours.” With no love lost between them, he grabbed Aubrey by the collar and drug him under the lee of a cliff in an unnamed canyon a few miles away from Justice and left him lying face up on the cold ground. Returning to Pat, he examined him for signs of life and found him breathing shallow and quick. He opened his coat and found the bloody wound that creased his abdomen. “Ah, Pat,” he complained. “You’ve been gut shot. That’s too bad, ‘cause you weren’t half bad at safe crackin’.” He grabbed Pat by the collar and began to drag him. “I’ll leave you here with Aubrey. Maybe you two can look out for each other in the life to come.” Depositing him next to the body, he turned to examine his back trail. Night was falling, and the clouds overhead promised more snow. “If I’m lucky, it’ll start snowing again and cover you fellows up, then they will think they are still chasing three men, not just one.” He turned to his horse and had a second thought. “What a minute. I seem to remember that Aubrey had a gold watch.” Returning to the body, he pilfered his pockets and removed a gold watch, a small pouch of tobacco, and eighteen cents. “You blamed fool. Didn’t you carry any matches? How am I supposed to smoke this tobacco without matches?” He leaned over Aubrey and began to pull on Pat’s coat pocket. When he touched Pat, his eyes opened and he examined Cord with confused eyes.
“You’re dying.” Cord replied coldly. “I’m going through your pockets.”
Realization overcame Pat and he barked out, “burn Hell…” before he passed out again. Cord shook his head in disbelief and finished stealing from Pat’s pockets. “Confounded!” he lamented. “Don’t either of you keep matches?”
He returned to his horse and grabbed the reigns. He noticed that ice was forming on the horse’s coat where sweat had collected. “Mercy, the temperature is dropping fast. I’d better find some shelter that ain’t got dead men in it.” Riding his horse, and leading the others behind him, he continued along the cap rock and made his way to an eastern face on the cliff above him where the wind wasn’t molesting him. Knowing he had to build a fire in order to save his horses, he dismounted and began collecting wood. He built the fire in the corner of the overhang where some hackberry trees sheltered the rock face and kept the snow from gathering. Kneeling in the soft leaves, he brushed an area clean from debris and kindled a small flame, which he fed with leaves and twigs until enough of the fire existed to burn on its own. Leaving the fire for a moment, he made his way into the canyon and collected enough firewood for several hours of burning. Before he could return to the fire, a spark popped from the flames and ignited the soft leaves underneath the hackberry tree, causing smoke to billow.
The horses, simply tied to a tree branch, spooked at the sudden burst of smoke, whinnied loudly and bolted from the shelter of the cliff into the snowy Texas landscape. Cord, who was close enough to witness the incident, but too far away to prevent it, yelled in frustration at the galloping horses and then stared in dismay as his best hope of salvation evaporated in front of him. Suddenly, he was alone with the cold as his sole companion.
For a long moment he simply stared at the horse tracks across the empty stretch of snow that lay before him. The pain in his half frozen feet finally forced him to accept that he had no hope of retrieving the horses until the storm passed. The nagging cold pressed against him and the frigid air burned his lungs as he breathed frustrated gasps of reality. Returning to his fire, he huddled against the numbing cold, desperately wishing he’d taken time to grab his blankets before gathering firewood. His blankets and the money that was still in his saddlebags; money that was uncounted. He had no idea how much money he no longer possessed.
The next morning found him glaring at an additional three inches of heavy, wet snow, the kind that caused a man to lift his feet completely above the snow before placing them carefully on the frozen ground, making walking an effort. He was no fool. He understood that without the horses he stood little chance of evading escape from the posse that was possibly within striking distance already.
Cursing himself a fool, he stepped into the barrier of snow and began to press into the wilderness that lay beyond him. Before an hour had passed, he knew he made a tragic mistake as he struggled against the deep snow. A layer of sweat had collected under his shirt, a layer that would freeze once he stopped moving. He had to find shelter soon after he stopped moving or he would die of exposure.
To make matters worse, the gentle, peaceful snowfall was growing heavier, erasing the footprints he left in the snow behind him. The posse would likely abandon the search once the snow removed all evidence of his passing, and all hope of rescue would be lost.
Around mid-day, the weather turned against him and a sharp, cold wind began to swirl around him, and the snow changed from fat, heavy flakes to a fine powder that swirled around him, diminishing his ability to see beyond a few yards at a time. By dusk, he lost his bearings and, without having a visual of the landscape around him, he imagined that he was walking in circles. Fear began to claw at him as he embraced that without a miracle he would freeze to death in the night and would remain alone in the prairie until someone stumbled across his dead body in the spring.
As the night grew darker, and the wind increased in strength, he began to hear ghosts calling out to him, whispering his name, beckoning him to join them. Fearing that his death was imminent, he started running across the snowy field in a drunken manner, fleeing his tormentors. His terror carried him along the edge of an abrupt slope and he lost his footing and half slid, half fell, across the crest of the short hill. Landing in a snow drift that was several feet deep, he began to gasp heavily. The wind wasn’t able to torment him while he was buried in the drift, so he stopped struggling and allowed himself to relax for a brief respite.
While he lay on his back in the snow, the ghostly cry began to wash across him again. Only this time the ghosts were closer than he remembered, and their horrible, terrifying screams were more pronounced than they were a moment before.
His mind flashed to his childhood, when his grandmother would read to him from A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickins. Even as a boy he feared that the ghosts who haunted Scrooge would come to him at night and demand that he give an account of his own life. This was a secret fear that plagued him throughout his life—a fear that almost consumed him. And now he lay dying in a snow drift and the reality of the spooks who haunted him was piercing his heart to the point of death. Finding no peace away from the howling wind, he once again pressed against the snow and forced himself to stand. He trudged through the drift and turned in stark terror when a bloody scream tore through the darkness around him.
“Shut up!” he tried to yell, but his lips were too cold to properly form the words. “Leave me be, spirits,” he pleaded. “Let me die in peace,” he whispered into the cold night air.
The ghosts began to call after him, almost sounding like wolves howling to the moon, with long, mournful cries that pealed great layers from his heart. His eyes were darting across the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of his tormentors, but his vision couldn’t press against the black air. “Oh, God!” He cried out. “Spare me this torment and take me quickly!”
Faintly, he heard the voices responding to him, “Harroughoouuuah.” The cry was shrill and terrifying, and closer than it had been a moment before.
“Oh, God!” he cried out again. “Please show me the light, and I will turn from my sinful ways.” He turned in a complete circle, trying to determine where the ghost lay waiting for him. “Please, God,” he pleaded. “Please don’t let me die in the darkness and allow the spirits to take my soul…”
But his plea was interrupted and he turned to face the voice in the darkness. “What do you want with me?”
The hair on his neck prickled when he heard the mournful reply, “Come to me.”
Mary Ellen spent most of the night sitting by the fire wishing her husband would come home. She never slept well when he was away from home, and his job as sheriff kept him away more than she ever thought possible.
She hated being alone more that she was willing to admit. For when she was alone, her thoughts about being barren gnawed at her, chewing a hole in her heart. For the past two nights she had sat by the fire, occasionally drifting into a frightful sleep. But, no sooner than she would drift off, the fire would die down and she would wake up cold.
“I’ll bet that Millicent Scott is sleeping well,” she said into the coals in her fireplace as she poked the ashes. “She’s content knowing that her family surrounds her.”
Without realizing she was talking to herself, she continued to lament her misery. Whenever she looked in the mirror at the Mercantile, she saw a plain, uninteresting woman staring back at her with accusing eyes. She never considered herself pretty, and she always felt that her husband had settled on her because there were few women folk to choose from in the West Texas ranch lands. Before they married, Bart went on a cattle drive to Kansas and brought home a bolt of calico for her as a gift. She assumed that he wanted her to sew a dress that would make her prettier. Shortly after she made the dress, Bart married her and took her to the future town site of Justice, where he had purchased a lot to build a home. He told her, “As we grow as a family, I will add more rooms to the house.” He bought more lumber, which he stored under an oil clothe in the barn for the day he would build an extra room.
After two years of trying to have a baby, they fell into hard times. Bart’s haberdashery was lost in a fire and they struggled to make ends meet. Finally, Bart sold the extra lumber to pay his bills, and Mary Ellen watched as her extra bed room evaporated in front of her eyes, along with the child she couldn’t give her husband.
She became more desperate to conceive, but every home remedy she knew failed her. She slept with a frog under her pillow, which was suggested to her by Old Lady Turner, who grew up in the Tennessee mountains. She tried waving smoke from a cedar branch over their bed, which was a custom of the local Kiowa tribe. She tried mixing algerita berries with cactus pulp and applying it as a poultice to her belly. She even tried swallowing whole bird eggs, which a carpet bagger from the East said worked for his wife.
She returned to her knitting and gazed wantonly at the enormous blanket that was once intended to be for her baby. She planned on giving the blanket to her precious new born son two Christmases ago, but that was not meant to happen. Now she had an extraordinarily large blanket but no child to wrap. Furthermore, she had no present to give her husband this year. They seldom had much to give each other, but they always managed to find something. This year she had nothing to give and it caused her to be further depressed.
To make matters worse, she received a letter in the post from her sister, who lived near Dallas, telling her that they were expecting their sixth child next spring. Six! Her sister made a point of saying that they had run out of names and were going to let their eldest child name the baby.
She herself had so many beautiful names picked out for their babies. She wanted to name their first son, Bartholomew Mathis, after his father. And then would come Margaret Grace, and then Luther Daniel, and then Polly Frances, and then John Bailey, after her own father. Then Dorcus Susannah , Prudence Elizabeth, and finally, Rufus Gerald. After that, she could claim that she ran out of names, but not until that time came.
But it was not meant to be. Her poor husband had been so excited about starting a family. He talked about having a large family and passing his business down to their sons as an inheritance. But after a few years, he stopped talking about it at all. When his store burnt, he quit trying to develop a future and simply stepped into the roll as a sheriff, a job that held little future for them.
What hurt her most was seeing Bart stop talking about his future sons. She wished so much that she could take back her wedding and allow him to marry a woman who wasn’t barren. She loved her husband dearly, so much so that it seemed logical to her that he would be better off if he could have a better wife. Perhaps her best course of action would be to simply stop living. Perhaps if she were gone, he could move on with his plans. Perhaps she would die of exposure before he returned from his manhunt. Perhaps she should do something while it was still cold enough to freeze to death.
The idea was absurd to her at first, but as the night grew longer, and as her weariness overwhelmed her, she began to see logic in her idea. Soon, she had convinced herself that there was no hope for her, and she really had no choice but to kill herself. It would be her present to her husband.