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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Toy Soldier: An Eerie Christmas

A Tale of the Eerie Saloon

By Christopher Leeson and Ellie Dauber
Revised, 2013

Author's note: Years ago, when Ellie and I completed "Eerie Saloon: Seasons of Change -- Autumn," it seemed unfortunate that scant attention had been given to how most of our favorite characters spent their Christmas Eve in Eerie, Arizona. That so little was said about them was understandable, since the flow of the narrative was not the best place to develop material that fitted into none of the established subplots. But the authors eventually worked out an action line that could be written as a (more or less) stand-alone short story. It fills in the Christmas experiences of several of the Eerie characters who were previously mentioned not at all. Should we be surprised to find out that, for some of them, that night turned out to be less than quiet?

--- Christopher Leeson

Sunday, December 24, 1871
Gazing up at the ridge north of Eerie, Arizona, Jessie Hanks remembered the not-so-old story that she had heard. People said that a band of Apaches had strung themselves out along its summit back when Eerie was being built, just to find out what the white men were doing in the old Mexican pueblo. They'd just stood up there, staring down from their pony backs for a little while before they veered away. But their brief inspection had been enough to give the flat-topped highland its name -- Chiricahua Mesa. No could say with authority that the scouts had really been Chiricahuas -- or even if they'd even been part of any tribe of Apaches -- but it was a safe guess.

At that moment, Jessie stood in the shadows behind the Eerie Saloon. The place had once been her prison but, by now, had become her home. Even in the brief time she had been standing outside, the sky had darkened. She could now see only a few stars sandwiched between the cloud cover, thick enough to hide what was a nearly full moon, and the black mass of the mesa.

These were the shortest days of the year. Usually, the whole settlement was as dark as a lobo's cave at night. Sundown came early in December, and folks in Eerie never wasted much of their scant money on kerosene. But this was Christmas Eve, and, out by the Catholic Church, a well-lit holiday carnival was going on. The young blonde wasn't much for church going, though, and, anyway, she wasn't Catholic.

Jessie had come outside after her first show to try and get her thoughts in order. When she was a little boy, living miles from the nearest neighbor, she had gotten used to playing alone, until she'd almost come to prefer it. Now she was a woman in the blush of her youth, but retiring into privacy every once in a while still helped to settle her occasional restless moods.

The saloon singer shivered. A change was in the air, and the breeze had swung around, to come from down the slopes of the Superstition Mountains. Jessie was wearing a sleeveless dress designed to catch a man's eye -- low-necked and bare-shouldered -- not to keep a body warm.

Jessie Hanks frowned thoughtfully. This was her first winter in Eerie, and she didn't know what to expect. People had told her that it was about the warmest part of the territory, the elevation being rather low, despite the mineral-rich mountains rising to the north. So far, the days -- and nights -- had, indeed, been agreeably mild, though the actual pace of life here had hardly seemed calm. In fact, her last few months of settled life had turned out to be almost as unpredictable as had her days as a long-riding outlaw.

And a man.

On the morning that she'd walked away from the sun-scorched farm where she'd been brought up, Jessie hadn't intended to live by robbery. But once she -- then a he, an inexperienced boy named Jesse making his way on his own -- had started solving his problems by breaking the law, he didn't have much choice about the way he would have to live after that. Over a dozen years, Jesse had seen many outlaw companions go down before thundering guns and, in his gut, hadn't believed that anyone had a charmed life. Maybe he'd gotten used to living fast and hard only because he had expected his candle to go out at any second.

Things had changed so suddenly.

For the first time since she had been that boy of 16, Jessie Hanks didn't expect to have another posse in her future. That future was going to be very different from her past. That was for certain, but how different would it be? That was something she sometimes felt she'd like to know. Even so, actually thinking about it made her uneasy.

She wasn't sure why, but Christmas was a time for thinking about where she was going -- and where she had come from. Lately, it seemed like she was always dwelling on bygone days, and she hated doing it. The past was like a clutching fist that wouldn't let her go. She'd been struggling with that iron grip for the whole of her life, and when she couldn't break its hold, it made her damned mad. Mad enough to kill sometimes.

Jessie had few illusions about what she had been and what she still might be beneath the surface. Back home, the preacher had always warned, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." What if the reaping that lay in store for Jessie Hanks shaped up to be ugly? Wasn't she better off not knowing her fate? Maybe the smartest thing would be to just let the bull gore her from behind. The best that could be said for the man who rode whistling into the bead of a bounty hunter was that he didn't have to tire himself with a lot of fretting before he cashed out.

The door opened behind her. The lamplight from the saloon kitchen made a long, dim rectangle that engulfed her, and sent her attenuated silhouette forward, across the grass towards the back fence. She would have preferred to be left alone for a little longer, but no such luck. Because all the patrons could pass through the kitchen on their way to the outhouse, she could expect to see almost anybody when she turned around. She glanced back to see Arnie Diaz, the saloon's clean-up boy.

"Señorita Jessie," he said. His Mexican accent was very slight, probably because the boy had attended Eerie's public school. "I saw you go out. I thought you might need your shawl."

He held the knitted garment in his hand, but he was looking up at the overcast. "Some of the stockmen inside say that it smells like snow is in the air. But it will surely not fall in town. I was very small when I last saw a few flakes float to the streets. It might snow in the mountains, though."

With a nod and a wan smile, Jessie accepted the shawl, an early Christmas gift from Molly. "Yeah, well, I saw plenty of snow in my time. Will and me, we were up in the Texas panhandle just before Sheriff Talbot caught him, moving cattle that weren't ours t'begin with. We got surprised by a damned blizzard and spent a good chunk of the time stuck in a cabin with hip-deep snowdrifts outside." She draped the warm garment over her bare shoulders; it felt good.

"The people from the north are always saying that they miss the snows of Christmas, but Christmas does not make my people think of snow. And the place where the first Christmas began, it was a desert just like this one."
"There was never much snow in the part of Texas I grew up in, neither," the girl replied. "But when that blue norther came down 'cross El Plano Estacado, it got as cold as the North Pole ever was. The men who get catched out on the range sometimes get brought home in the back of somebody's farm wagon, as stiff as post oaks."

The boy nodded. "That sometimes happens to travelers and prospectors who try to cross the Superstitions in winter weather, too." He regarded the dark sierra. "I think the cold weather will be bad up there tonight."
"Snow, they think?"

"We shall see. But all the talk about snow has got me to thinking. When I was in school, the teacher, Senorita Osbourne, read us a special story just before class was let out for the holiday." The boy winced. "She reads such things to the little muchachos, I mean."

"You're surely too old for them storybooks now," Jessie replied amusedly. "Was this here yarn about Christmas?"

"Si. It was about a family that was cold, hungry, and in trouble. According to the story, if the first snow of the year falls on Christmas day, it is a kind of magic snow that is sent from the angels themselves. And it makes miracles happen."

Jessie laughed, almost snorted. "I already got my belly full of magic right here in Eerie, and I didn't have t'wait for a snowfall in the desert to get hit with both barrels."

Arnie's answering laugh was careful. He was unsure, as most folks were, just how sensitive Jessie and the Hanks gang were about the magic of Eerie, the magical drink that had changed five hard men into five young women.

Jessie wasn't particularly sensitive. Usually she just shrugged off references to the strange business of Shamus' potion. It had happened and everybody knew it. She wasn't big and strong enough to make folks pretend otherwise. Jessie Hanks usually didn't get her back up over what was just careless talk, not unless some fool was deliberately trying to get a rise out of her. If he did, she knew more than enough ways to put the incident behind her.

The singer glanced at the sky again, this time looking for signs of storm. After a moment, she realized that Arnie had not withdrawn into the kitchen.

"Señorita Jessie," he finally said.

"Yep, what?"

"I... I wanted to ask you something."

"And what might that be?" She hoped he wasn't going to say he wanted to stroll with her, or even to see her socially. He was just a kid.

Anyway, Jessie was intensely involved with Deputy Paul Grant, and had been ever since he had caught her down on the Mexican border and had brought her back for trial. When completely in his power, he had treated her just like a real woman, and he wasn't mocking her when he did it. She'd come to realize that it was the way he had been seeing her all along. The days spent alone with a man so different from the outlaws she'd been used to had helped her look at herself in a new way, too. By the time they had gotten back to Eerie, she didn't mind at all being treated the way a man treats a woman, at least not by Paul.

"All the folks say that you were about the best in the West with a gun."

This statement wasn't exactly what Jessie had been expecting. "I suppose," she replied awkwardly. "I shot a few folks and didn't get shot too often in return. But an inch here or an inch there, and I'd be dead right now. If you're interested in shooting, I have t'tell you that a man who uses a gun doesn't last long, not unless he's lucky."

"A man who uses a gun lasts longest if he knows how to use it."

Jessie drew in a breath in and let it out audibly. "Yep, I'd guess an hombre of your experience would know all about that."

"I read a lot," Arnie explained defensively.

"Read what? Penny dreadfuls? They're all a lot of horse apples. I don't know if Bill Hickok or any of them other gunfighters did any of the things that those books say they did, but I'd lay you odds that they didn't."

The boy got to the point. "You knew how to make people respect you."

"Because I didn't talk while I et?" she asked facetiously.

"Because you never took any basura from them."

She smiled ironically. "Those days are all run out. These days I'm taking plenty of basura, as you call it. Did you ever try to haggle with Shamus over getting paid a fair wage?"

"People respect a man who knows how to use a gun."

She thought Arnie was beginning to sound exasperated because of her sarcasm. Whatever the lad was edging up to, he seemed to be all mighty serious about it. "Who d'ya want t'plug, Arnie? The sheriff? Shamus? Or is it that boy you're always fist fighting with at school -- Pablo?"

The youth lifted his chin archly. "I don't want to shoot anyone. I would just like to learn how to use a gun so that people will know that I can use it."

"Use it for what, Arnie?"

"To, ah, to protect the town," he suggested lamely.

Jessie crossed her arms. "All right, since your intentions are so noble, let's start your lessons right now. The first thing you need to learn about the six-gun is that you never draw it unless you're gonna pull the trigger."
He looked at her quizzically, wondering if she was going to give him serious advice.

"And the first time you do use it on another man, you'll probably have to hightail it into the cactus to keep out of the hands of the sheriff. A fella with a killing on his tally can't ever go home again. Did you ever think about that? How would you feel if your family had to struggle to get along 'cause you couldn't be there for them when they needed you? Would they respect you 'cause you wouldn't take any basura from some saddle tramp, or would they think instead that you ruined your life?

"And what kind of life would you have on the dodge, with no place to call home and no friend to trust? Hell, I had to worry more about the owlhoots riding beside me than the law in the last town back. There were nights when I wouldn't let anyone know where I was spreading my roll, on the chance that I'd get my throat cut in my sleep for some old quarrel, or my share of the last take."

"I wouldn't be an outlaw!" Arnie protested. "I could be a lawman."

The girl shook her head. "I didn't start out to be an outlaw neither. I left my pa's farm walking, but that wasn't getting' me anywhere. I needed a horse so I could go find my brother, and so I stole one. That was a hanging offense. I was an outlaw at the age of 16, after only a couple days on my own.

"After that, I did a lot worse -- at first because I was plum scared, and later on because I wanted some respect. I also wanted two pennies that I could rub together, after growing up so dirt poor that even the dirt couldn't respect my pa and me.

"But that filly of respect is a wild bronco, Arnie. Very few hombres who get up on her back can ride her to the gate, and when they get throwed off, they're never sure what pile of manure they'll land in. Most men don't even know they've done anything too awful bad until they see a poster with their face and name on it."

"So you won't teach me how to use a gun?"

Jessie shrugged. "I won't say that I won't. We haven't talked much before this, so I don't really know where you're coming from. But I'm not about to turn some mother's son into a gun slick till I know for sure that he's on the up and up. This country already has enough gunfighters and outlaws. But if you really want to be a lawman, or a prison guard, or a shotgun rider, or something respectable like that, it would be different."

"A lawman like Paul Grant?"

She scowled at the sarcastic tone he'd used. She was ready to fly off the handle if the boy said anything smart-mouthed about her lover. "All I can say is that I'd teach a man like Paul how t'knock clothespins off a line any day. I know he'd use the fast moves I taught him t'shoot the right targets for the right reasons. But I'm pretty durn sure that a man like him wouldn't have to ask a body for any such thing."

"Because he is too proud to learn from a woman?"

Jessie's mouth pursed tight. This talk of theirs was definitely getting edgy. But Jessie's temper held. Arnie was only a kid, and he didn't know better. "No," she said, "it's because Paul'd already know how to use a pistol well enough t'do the job he needs t'do, and he wouldn't need to show off with a lot of flashy tricks t'be respected.

"Arnie, you gotta understand it's the man behind the gun that makes all the difference." She looked into his sulky face, to see if her words were sinking in. "Paul's got a lot t'be proud about," she said after a moment. "When you've got friends who can say that about you, too, you'll have plenty t'be proud of yourself."

Arnie Diaz shrugged and turned back into the open doorway.

"Thanks for the shawl, Arnie," she called after him. "We'll have t'talk again sometime soon."

* * * * *

If the boy's answering mutter had actually meant anything, Jessie wasn't able to decipher it. But, a minute after he was gone, the singer decided to get back to work.

The coolness and purity of the outside air now gave way to the smoky warmth of the barroom's wood stove and the scent of whisky. Jessie glanced at the clock on the wall. She'd agreed to do a special show for Shamus because of the holiday, and she been working hard all day. At the sight of her, some of the men waved and called her name.

"I've gotten my breath back," she told her audience. "Anybody got another song they wanna hear?"

Joe Ortlieb called out, "Sing 'I Saw Three Ships', Jessie." A few others shouted in agreement.

Jessie frowned, and her answer came back slowly. "I-I don't know that one."

"Aw, sure you do," Joe answered. "It goes... 'I saw three ships come sailing by on Christmas Day...'" He stopped, expecting her to continue.

"Hey," the blonde said, "I've been boning up on Christmas songs all week long, and I don't remember no ship in any of them. Has anybody else got a song?" Her eyes darted around the room.

Stu Gallagher came to her rescue. "How about you sing that one Hans Euler taught you, that 'Silent Night' song?"

When a couple of others called for the same carol, Jessie let out a sigh of relief. "Yesirree, that's a beauty. I never heard one better, in fact." She began, "Silent night, holy night..."

* * * *

Jessie stopped her song suddenly when a tall, red-haired man came running into the saloon. "Is the town doc here?" he asked anxiously. The excited stranger was bundled up for cold weather and looked like he'd gotten his fair portion of it. "They told me over at the other saloon that he was."

"I'm Dr. Upshaw," responded a middle-aged man in a brown suit. He got to his feet. "What seems to be the problem?"

"My name's Sig Zimmer. I was coming in from my claim for supplies. I... uhh, I stopped on the mountain trail to take a... anyway, I found a man, just off the road. He looked pretty sick."

Doc grabbed his medical bag and headed towards the prospector. "I hope you didn't leave him out on the trail with the temperature going down like it is."

"Nope. I slung him over the back of my horse and got to town quick as I could. He's right outside."

Doc looked back towards the bar. "Shamus, you mind if we bring the man in here? It'll be faster than taking him back to my office."

"Go right ahead," the barman answered. "Somebody be putting them two tables together..." He pointed to a pair of narrow rectangular tables near the wall, the tables for the restaurant. " they can lay that poor man out on 'em for the doc t'be examining."

A few minutes later, the patient was on the tables. He was of medium build. His hair and beard were mostly brown, but streaked here and there with gray. His clothes, a green plaid work shirt and blue jeans, were dirty and badly ripped. His breathing was labored. He seemed conscious, but not quite aware of what was going on around him. Upshaw touched his face; it was hot with fever. The physician slipped off the rags of his shirt and opened the front buttons on his red flannel long johns. He looked closely at the bruises on the man's chest and arms.

"He's taken a fall, probably from horseback," Upshaw said. "But I think there's more than that wrong with him."

Jessie had gotten a brief glance at the man when they'd carried him by her. It had astonished her to see that face, and she had hung back at first, unable to believe her own eyes. Recovering from surprise, the singer tried to wedge herself in between the bigger and stronger men of the crowd to get a better look, but it was no go. Patrons who would gladly have stepped aside for the attractive singer with a tip of the hat were so preoccupied that they didn't even notice her. "Dammit!" she swore under her breath.

Bridget Kelly had been watching from her rented poker table. Finally she put her cards down. "What say we call a halt for a little while?" The other players barely heard her suggestion, all of them being fixated on what the doctor was doing.

"Sounds like a plan," Ed Nolan replied to the stylish redhead, carefully putting his cards face down alongside his chips and standing up. The others followed suit and drifted over to the crowd that had already clustered around the makeshift examining table.

Bridget signaled the clean-up boy. "Arnie," she called out, "could you come here, please?"

The boy hastened over, still carrying a tray full of empty glassware. "What can I do for you, Bridget?"

"I-I hate to ask, but would you mind watching the table -- the cards and the cash -- for just a while? I'll give you a quarter when I come back."

The boy glanced at the crowd. "I wanted to see what was going on, but -- for you, Bridget -- I will stand guard." He set the tray down on the table and slid into one of the chairs. "But you tell Shamus you asked me to, okay?"

"I will." She gave him a wink and hurried off.

Arnie watched her leave, then looked down at the table. The betting was in the second round. He couldn't light-finger anything from the pot; it would be noticed. So would anything he took from the stake at each man's place. The drinks were another matter. There were three glasses of beer and another glass held two fingers of whiskey. All of it was there for the sampling, with the players too busy elsewhere to notice. He just had to be careful; Shamus had already forbidden him to drink even so much as a sip of beer while he was in his saloon, not even if he was able to pay for it.

* * * *

Hiram Upshaw sighed as he re-packed his stethoscope into his medical bag.

"So, what's the verdict on yuir patient?" Shamus asked.

The doctor shook his head. "Too early to be certain. Like I said, he probably took a fall. That didn't help things, but I think his real problem is pneumonia. He probably slipped from his horse when he didn't have the strength left to sit up straight. Being out in the mountains at this time of year just worsened his condition. There's not a great deal..." then he trailed off, concerned that the patient, despite all appearances, might actually understand his words. "At the moment," he picked up again, "rest and warmth is about the best thing for him. If he can swallow anything, he ought to receive plenty of broth."

Shamus gave the doctor a knowing nod and led him away from the patient. Neither of them gave much notice to Jessie, who immediately slipped in close to the ailing stranger when their withdrawal left an opening. She stood over the man, staring with an incredulous expression.

"It's very bad then, eh Doctor?" said Shamus.

"Fever, congestion of the lungs, it's bad. Sometimes, pneumonia comes on out of nowhere; sometimes it takes over when some other sickness has put a man down. Serious wounds also seem to bring on the disease. I saw it take a terrible toll in the army. You know how Stonewall Jackson died?"

"Some sniper on his own side shot him, I heard."

Upshaw frowned thoughtfully. "It was more than one soldier shooting. A jumpy officer on night picket duty ordered his line to fire into the dark when he heard a few hoof beats coming out of the woods. But the bullet that hit Jackson only made the amputation of his arm necessary. Many a man lost a limb in that war. General Hood lost both an arm and a leg, but he was still fit enough to lead an army into Tennessee in '64. But pneumonia struck Jackson, and he didn't last long, strong man though he might have been. There's not a lot we can do for that fellow over there, except give him what food and drink he's able to take, and keep him covered up. His own body will have to win this fight."

Shamus glanced over at the crowd thoughtfully, noticing Jessie's bright blue dress amid the mostly male cluster, but he didn't think anything of it. "The man looks plumb worn out," the Irishman said to the physician. "If I were the betting type...."

"With this sort of infection...well, I just don't know."

"One thing I can say, he's picked one hell of a night to die on," Shamus O'Toole remarked.

"Maybe we should place our hopes on what night it is. A miracle happened a couple thousand years ago on this night, and that fellow needs a miracle here and now. If he makes it through past dawn, the odds will start to shift in his favor."

Just then Molly joined the two men, her face in a thoughtful cast. Upshaw acknowledged the lady with a nod. She nodded in return, and then conveyed a concerned look to Shamus.

"Can he be moved?" her husband asked the physician. "He ain't exactly the sort of Christmas decoration I'd be wanting in me saloon." He realized how callous that sounded, and added, "Unless he really needs t'be staying where he is."

"Shamus!" Molly rebuked him sharply.

Upshaw might have smiled had the emergency not been so dire. With a grimace he said, "I'm glad to see that you're taking the Christmas story to heart, Shamus. You needn't worry where he'll stay tonight. I plan to ask a few of your patrons to help me get him over to the ward I have in my office. He'll need to be looked after by someone, though." He looked at his pocket watch. "I hate to get Edith Lonnigan out of bed..."

He didn't add that Edith was probably sharing that bed with Davy Kitchner. The miner had come down from his claim just that afternoon, to take Christmas with his lady friend. Upshaw had seen Davy leave with his nurse/receptionist when he closed his practice at sundown.

"I suppose that leaves it to me," the doctor said without much enthusiasm. "I was up most of last night delivering the Kelsey's baby."

Molly shook her head. "No, Hiram, ye need to share yuir burdens. Take him upstairs," she said gravely. "I'll be watching him for ye."

Shamus looked surprised. "But Molly, love, what about the late Mass? Ye've been talking about us going to it all day. Maggie just left to get ready."

"We can't be like that selfish priest in the Good Samaritan story, Shamus. He thought his affairs were too all-fired holy for him to stop and help a wounded man by the road."

Shamus gazed theatrically at the ceiling. "Maybe it's a test that Someone has put before us," he replied with a sigh.

"I'll watch him for you," broke in a voice both melodious and strong. Jessie had come up behind the barkeeper's wife. "Molly, you and Shamus go to that there Mass of yours. Doc, maybe you can tell me what I need t'know t'best look after the hombre."

Molly turned toward the younger woman, looking surprised. Shamus appeared to be both relieved and annoyed. "What have ye got t'do with any of this, Jess?" the Irishman asked. "And who'll be taking care of me customers while yuir playing angel of mercy upstairs?"

"I-I..." Jessie was trying hard to concoct an answer. She wasn't quite sure why she thought she had to be so secretive about her motives. All she knew was that, if that old man was going to die soon, she didn't want her connection to him to be known. If he lived, well, that was a touchy subject. Things would become decidedly awkward if he decided to hang around Eerie.

Anyway, if she said too much, Shamus and his wife would make a big fuss, and neither of them would go to church. Worse, they would have their own ideas about how she should behave, and she thought that how she behaved was her own business. Maybe it would have been for the best to have kept quiet, stayed in the background, and let things take their course. But she had acted impulsively, as she had so often done, because she guessed that the sick man would not last out the night. If he did die, and she wasn't there for him, what would she think of herself on Christmas morning?

Molly was studying the singer's face curiously. She liked Jessie; at least she had after those first bad days. Excitement followed the girl around, like bees following a wedding bouquet. Jessie kept the saloon lively. But the willingness to tend to the needy had never appeared to be one of her strong suits.

Nonetheless, the older woman sensed urgency in the singer's request; something was riding her back, and it hadn't been there an hour before. Molly could also see, behind the young woman's eyes, a barely concealed desperation. 'Landsakes,' she thought. What was affecting her so?

While Molly was trying to read her mind, Jessie managed to say, "There ain't that many here tonight, Shamus, and some of them'll be going to the Mass, too. I can help you and Molly out in a better way than by singing. The band can still play Christmas tunes. Maybe folks will have even more fun singing along with them."

"Jess," Shamus began, "do ye think ye might be the best...?"

"Please..." Molly said, putting on a brave smile. "I think it's a very nice offer. Maybe Jessie is being moved by the spirit of the night. Let her tend to the man if she cares to. Do it for me."

Shamus laughed and kissed his wife on the nose. "Ye ain't playing fair when ye ask that way, Molly love."

He looked closely at Jessie. "All right, lass, but Laura's with her husband tonight, and I've promised t'let Arnie go early. Jane has t'be closing up the kitchen while Maggie's at church with her little ones. Ye'll have t'be coming down t'be helping R.J. now and then while we're away." Molly gave a quick cough. "If he needs ye, that is," Shamus added hastily.

* * * * *

A couple of patrons, with Molly leading them, carried the sick man up the stairs to put him to bed in a room generally rented to stage travelers, and then they withdrew. Molly stayed behind long enough to help Jessie pull off the stranger's cracked boots and his dirty trousers. Molly threw a patchwork quilt over his still-as-death frame and told Jessie where she might fetch a thick Navaho blanket that would keep him warmer still.

When Jessie came back with the bedspread, Molly pointed to the small, flat-topped chamber stove. "Put in some wood and stoke up a good fire, Jess." With the night getting colder, the sick man would need more warmth. Jessie would appreciate it, too, since she had left her shawl on the row of hooks in the kitchen. The younger woman set herself to the task, eager to satisfy Molly and have her gone. In minutes, the two women began to feel the heat spreading out through the room.

"I've asked Jane to be putting some soup on," Molly remarked. "Don't ye be trying t'force feed him before he wakes ---"

"I know, Molly. I won't choke 'im to death."

The older woman nodded and took one last glance at the sick man. His eyes were closed in the heavy slumber of sickness, and his breathing seemed all but imperceptible. "Jessie," she said, "he might start coughing and spitting up bloody spume. There's some rags in the hamper in the kitchen. I'll have Jane or Arnie bring them up. Ye can be using them to keep him clean."

"I'll do what I can," she promised.

Molly remained for just a moment longer, trying to think of more advice to give. She didn't succeed and so whispered goodbye as she hurried to the door. There wasn't much time left for her and Shamus to change and reach the church so they could enjoy the posada before the Mass began.

Now alone, Jessie stood staring down at the patient's face. "What are you doing out here, old man?" she asked him, not expecting an answer. "Have you shown up on my doorstep just to cash in your chips? Dammit! I thought I was rid of you years ago. Now what? Am I going t'be stuck going over to the churchyard regular like, t'put flowers on your grave? Cuss it! I'm not the flowers type."

Suddenly the man opened his eyes and looked around.

He had seemed so out of this world a moment before that Jessie was surprised. "Are you feeling stronger?" the blonde asked, worried that he might have heard her accusing words. Well, he couldn't make much of them, no matter what. There was no way he could recognize her.

"Wh-where am I?" The man's voice was weak, strained.

"Eerie... Eerie, Arizona," Jessie informed him. "They found you on the trail and brung you into town."

"I'm in a town? Aren't angel?"

She smiled scornfully. The old man hadn't lost his Alabama accent, not even after decades in Texas. The drawl came out in every word he uttered. "You 'spect to be seeing angels, codger?" she asked. "Don't be so sure. And I don't think I could get into His heavenly host unless I started dressing like a church lady." She touched the azure fabric and warm flesh at her neckline.

The man was actually trying to smile. "You're plum purdy, Miss. If -- If you ain't one of the angels, you're a sight finer than any girl I ever seed, outside of...." His voice trailed off as he struggled for breath.

She cringed at the compliment, considering who this man was. "Yeah, I know, 'outside of a cathouse.'"

"I was gonna say 'outside of my Livy.'" He gave her a quiet, concerned glance. "Are you bothered by the way you look, missy? You shouldn't be."

She was taken off guard by his words of concern, spoken, as he would assume, to a stranger. Did her appearance bother her? Jessie wasn't sure. Better to change the subject. "Where you from, and what in hell are you doing in Eerie?"

"I -- I was looking for -- for my... sons."

The worst possible answer. She turned away, unable to meet his pain-filled eyes.

"I don't have much...time..." he said almost inaudibly, before coughing his breath away. When Jessie looked back at him, he was already asleep.

Jessie shook her head. "Of all the gin mills, in all the towns, in all the world, what twisted fate brought you into this one? And on Christmas Eve, no less." She shook her head. "Old man, what in the Lord's name am I going to do with you?"

* * * * *

The man just kept sleeping. The young woman watching over him, meanwhile, sat next to the stove, in a plain wood chair with a flat, oval back and round seat. Her thoughts were troubling, and she soon found she needed to get away for a few minutes. Jessie went to the door and out into the hall. The band was taking a break, but someone must have gotten hold of her guitar. She could hear Christmas music and rough voices raised in song. Over the balcony rail, she could see the floor of the barroom. Hans Euler was the one making the music. R.J. looked up at her, cocking his head as if to ask, "Everything all right?"

She shrugged in reply, and that seemed to satisfy him. Molly and Shamus were just leaving through the batwing doors, wearing their church-going attire. Just then, Jane Steinmetz came into sight from the direction of the kitchen, carrying a clay pitcher, a tin cup, and a small pile of laundered rags on a tray. Jessie realized that the tall, strong-looking woman was coming her way.

Jessie went to the head of the stairs, waiting for Jane to climb up. The latter stopped a couple steps short of the landing. "The soup will be hot soon, Jessie," the other woman said. "In the meantime, this is for the man. My ma used to make me drink as much water as I could hold when I had the croup, so maybe it'll help."

"Thanks, Jane," she said and accepted the tray.

"Do you need any help -- with anything?" the larger woman asked.

"Nope, he mostly just sleeps."

"Should we wake him to drink the soup, or should I keep in on low heat until you tell me he's ready for it?"

Jessie thought for a moment. "Bring it up when it's ready. The sooner we get it into him, the more good it'll do."

Jane said, "Okay, Jessie," and went back down the stairs while the singer carried the tray into the room.

She was somewhat startled to see the wayfarer sitting up, his head braced against the pillow. "Could I have something t'drink, missy?"

"You're in good luck," Jessie said. "I just brung you a pitcher of water." She set it down on the nightstand and filled the cup full. When she offered it to him, his hand was shaking so much that she was afraid that he'd spill it over the bedclothes.

With her help, he got it to his lips and drank deeply. Some of the water ran through his beard and dripped onto his union suit.

"We'll have some soup ready for you real soon," Jessie told him.

"That's nice," he said with a sigh. "Say, what's your name anyway?"

Something told Jessie not to lie, not at a time like this, but she lied anyway.  "Giselle."

"I heard two ladies talking outside. One of them said the name 'Jessie' twice. Who's Jessie?"

The girl broke eye contact. Trust Jane to mess up a person's best-laid plans. "My real name is Jessica," she said. "Giselle is the name that I use when I sing in the saloon."

"And -- and they call you Jessie?" he asked, his breathing still slow and difficult.

"My close friends do. Most people call me Giselle," she again lied.

"May I call you, Jessie? I think it fits you jes' fine. And I like the name. My woman, she named our first boy William after her father. I named the other one Jesse, jes' 'cause I liked the name." He chuckled at his own pun, but the laugh turned into a cough.

"Sure. I don't care."

"My name is -- Frank H-Hanks," he wheezed.

Jessie nodded, still avoiding his glance. "Pleased t'meet you, Mr. Hanks."

He held up his trembling hand for her to shake. She swallowed hard and took it. The hand was surprisingly cold and thinner than the hand she had held so long ago.

"Call me, Frank, please, you being my nurse, and all." He took another sip from the tin cup, holding it with both hands. "Say, you ever hear anything about m'sons, Will and Jesse Hanks?"

Jessie held herself steady. "Wh-what d'you mean... Frank? How could I have heard anything about them two, living way out here?"

"A friend of mine back in Texas -- that's where I'm from -- he showed me something in the Austin paper. It said my boys went 'n' got themselves killed in a town called Eerie in Arizona."

Jessie steeled her best poker face. "Yeah, I... I knew about that. It happened last summer. I didn't want t'tell you, in case you hoped they was still alive. You come all this way to visit their graves?" That would be difficult. There were no graves.

Frank put the glass down on the nightstand, or tried to. His hand shook so much that the girl took the vessel from him. "I-I came to... to say goodbye to 'em," he said. "I had to come now, 'cause I don't have a lot of time left."

Jessie forced a smile. "Maybe you'll get better. You're already seem stronger than you were when they carried you in."

He shook his head, and this small gesture seemed to take great effort. "It ain't just this sickness that's on me, missy. The doctor in Austin told me I got tumors." He tapped his chest with his index finger. "Here, in m'lungs."

"Oh -- I'm sorry. I guess you must have been pretty close to your boys, to come all the way out here." Jessie had to hear what he'd say to that.

"We were close once, 'cause we had nobody else. But the boys hated the life they was living back home, they hated being so poor, and they hated having no hope. And they hated me for not being able t'give them something better."

'That's a pretty selfish way to put it,' Jessie thought sourly. 'We knew you didn't have anything to give us, but we was just kids. It was up to you to teach us how to be men. Instead you showed us that when the chips were down, you was a coward who wouldn't be there for us.'

Aloud she asked, "Was you a bad father?" She bit her tongue for blurting that out.

He drew in and released a ragged breath. "I suppose I was." She could hear the wheeze as he forced out the words. "I tried to do right by them, but the times were so hard. After I was alone, I spent the years wondering how I could have handled things better. I couldn't stop 'em from taking Will off to the Orphans' Home. Jesse up 'n' left when he turned 16, cussing at me till he was out of earshot.

"But he was right t'leave. That land couldn't support three prairie dogs, much less three people. It wasn't mine anyway -- a rich neighbor stole it years before. I only wished that I could have gone with the lad. We mighta hooked up with Will and made us a better life someplace else... If I'd been the right sort of father, they would have wanted us all t'be together."

The old man gave a slight moan and clutched at his chest until his breath came back. "I lost my chance," he wheezed. "Since then I wanted to find either one of 'em and tell 'em I was sorry. But all I heard 'bout the pair of 'em was old stories in the newspapers.

"They -- They moved around so much. A -- a robbery here, a killing there. They'd both become outlaws, and folks said they was about the worst in th'West. I know that if their ma had lived, she would have brung 'em up better. They would have known from her that good people don't take what ain't theirs."

He fell quiet for a moment, his expression so full of misery that it made Jessie cringe. "I gave up sharecroppin' after Jesse left," he said when he got his breath back. "I barely got along as a hired hand on another man's spread. When my strength played out, I cooked chuck for cowboys working the range. I wasn't even any good at that.

"I knew it could never be, but I wanted more than anything for me and my boys to be together again. I missed my chance when Will was in the New Mexico prison. That's when I found out that I really was a coward. I wanted to go to him, and put all the anger behind us. But I just couldn't bring m'self t'face him until I heard he was already out."

'No, you never wanted to hear anything we tried to say to you,' Jessie thought. She had wanted to get her father patched up enough to tell him how he had ruined his boys' lives. But she hadn't been thinking clearly. She hadn't remembered how pathetic he had always been. Bawling out this old wreck of a man would be like kicking a sick dog. When a dog reaches the end of his rope, you just bury him. That's all you can do.

"Can we talk later?" Frank Hanks said all of a sudden. "I-I'm feeling... tired."

"I'll be here," Jessie told him. She returned to her chair and let the man drift off. "He's hurting, he's dying," she said silently to herself. "I don't want to make the end any worse for him. I just have t'figure out what I do want."

Just then there was a tap on the door. "Can I come in?" She recognized the voice.

"Sure, Arnie," Jessie answered. "Just be quiet."

The sixteen-year-old opened the door and slipped light-footedly inside. Jessie went over to meet him.

"What is it, kid?" she asked in a hush.

"Before Molly would let me go to church," the boy explained, "she wanted me to check to see if you needed anything." He glanced at the figure on the bed and made the sign of a cross. "Damn. He looks like he's dead already."

Jessie looked over her shoulder. Her father didn't look as bad in her eyes as he did to Arnie, apparently. "He was talking with me only a few minutes ago. He just fell back to sleep."

"Are you sure he's ever going to wake up?" the boy asked.

"That ain't for me t'say," she replied with a sigh.

"Who is he?"

Jessie paused, thinking quickly. She couldn't tell the truth. "Just some stranger. You ain't still mad about that business of gun training, are you?" she followed up quickly.

"I forgot to tell you that the main reason I wanted to shoot is so I can protect my mother and my brother and sisters."

'Did it take him this long t'come up with of that excuse?' she thought skeptically. "That's a mighty fine purpose," she told him. "Treat your ma and the little ones like a boy your age should, and maybe you can be trusted to learn to handle a gun."

"I hope you mean that."

"What I mean depends more on you than on me. Anyway, thanks for coming, but I don't need nothing just now. Jane has promised to lend a hand, and she'll be bringing up some soup for the old man in a little while."

"He doesn't look so old, just used up."

"He's getting on in years. He looks even older than he really is."

Arnie frowned slightly, but nodded. "Then... adios."

"Wait," Jessie added. "I do need one thing."

"Yes, Miss Jessie?"

"I could use some company."

His young brow furrowed. "I cannot stay for very long, Señorita."

"No, I mean some particular company. Could you make a side trip over to La Parisienne on the way to church?"

"The cathouse?" he asked in an embarrassed voice. "Go there on my way to church? Why?"

"I ain't asking you t'go spend any time inside, Arnie. Just tell whoever answers the door that I need Wilma t'come over here as soon as she can, okay? You tell 'em it's real, real important, and it can't wait."

"I-I will tell them." He chuckled nervously. "But when I get to church, I don't think that I will tell Molly -- or my mama -- where you had me to go." He tapped his forehead, as if tipping the hat he wasn't wearing, and turned around to leave. Distracted by thoughts of the cathouse, he almost collided with someone as he hurried out into the hall.

"Oops!" said Bridget. The dish and spoon on her tray rattled and the soup sloshed slightly.

"So sorry!" the boy exclaimed.

"Easy there, Bridget," Jessie said. "You could ruin that fancy dress of yours if you soak it in stew."

"Senorita," the boy was babbling, "I did not see you. I would --"

"I know, Arnie," the gambler said. "It's all right. Now, don't you have to meet your brother and sisters at the church?"

"Si, that is so. If you've stained your dress, you should take it to my mother. She is the best laundress in the whole territory."

"Thank you. If necessary, I'll do just that."

"Go on, Arnie," Jessie put in. "You need to get into better clothes yourself, and you've got a little job to do along the way."

"Si, si. I will." Then he carefully stepped around Bridget and hurried down the stairs.

"He's sweet on you, you know," Jessie said with a teasing smile. "But all he manages to do is get into your way."

Bridget stood in the doorway, watching the youth hurry downstairs, across the barroom and into the street. "So it seems. I keep trying to understand him by remembering what I thought and felt when I was a boy his age. But all I can remember is that whatever crazy thing I did, I was always dead serious about it."

"Come on in," the blonde said. She removed the water tray from the nightstand and set it down on the dresser. Bridget stepped into the room and put her tray into the vacated space.

Then she stared down at the sleeping stranger and frowned gravely. "How is he doing?"

"He was talking a few minutes ago, but he keeps falling asleep."

"Did he tell you who he is?"

"He said his name was Franklin." She let it pass whether that was a first or last name. "He came into these parts looking for kin."

"What are their names?"

Jessie shrugged. "Nobody I ever heard of." She changed the subject abruptly. "What are you doing with the soup? What happened to Jane?"

"She's fine. I asked her to let me bring it up."

"Yeah? Why aren't you running your game?"

"The players all drifted away after our friend here showed up."


Bridget shook her head. "I'm not sorry. I need a break. Don't get me wrong; I like to play poker. It's the best way I know to make a living. But it's the same thing day and night. It gets hard, sometimes. Only, I can't afford to stop, not even for a few days."

"If you didn't gamble, what could you do?" Jessie asked. "Go back to serving beer?"

"Not hardly. I just wish I could sing as well as you."

"Did you ever think about dancing? You know, I've seen those legs of yours."

Bridget looked like she was about to laugh. "The can-can? I never thought about that. But I'm trying to get my self-respect back, not kick it away. The trouble is, other than poker, I don't know what else I'm good for. Did you ever notice that the work usually done by women isn't all that appealing?"

"The work for men isn't all that appealing, neither. I s'pose that's why I did so little of it. When I was a kid I had t'work for weeks on a crop that died for lack of water, or the grasshoppers et it before we could. I guess that put an end to my appreciation for hard work."

Both smiled. Then Jessie glanced at the man in the bed, and her smile faded.

"I wish that Christmas really could make a difference," Bridget said suddenly. "The ladies at the Orphans' Home always talked Christmas up big. Even now, on Christmas Eve, I always get the feeling that something important is about to happen. But then Christmas day arrives, and it's just like every other day, except for more drinking and more eating than usual. Do you know what I envy?"

"I can think of a couple things."

Bridget smiled. "I envy the people who can spend a day like Christmas with their family."

"I don't know about that," Jessie replied with consideration. "There's a lot of old anger that can come out of the cupboard when a family gets together."

The gambler nodded soberly. "That's too bad, but I know it's true. I see so many people who should know better wallowing in the memory of old hurts."

"You never said much about your own family, Bridget. I get the idea that you were in that home because you really were an orphan. You weren't put there as a prisoner, like Will was. Where did your folks come from before Texas?"

Instead of answering, Bridget said, "You never say much either. Will told me a little when we got older, mostly when he was drunk and cussing like a trooper. He thought your father was -- Sorry, I guess that's not a good topic for conversation."

"Will told you he was a yellow dog coward, I suppose. I heard him say that plenty of times myself, and that it would just about size things up."

Bridget shook her head. "That's hard to imagine. How could a coward produce two cussed mean boys like you and Will?"

Jessie shrugged. "I guess we took after our ma. Pa always said she was feisty. I hardly remember her, except when she lay dying. Pa didn't drink much before that; afterwards he guzzled his own 'shine, whenever he could get the fixings to make it. He was a crying drunk."

"Do you think he got along all right after you left?" Bridget asked.

The singer frowned. "I don't know how he could have, but I'm sure he did." Jessie wanted to step away from this topic. "By the way, I sent word for Wilma t'come on over."

Bridget's brow creased. "She'll never come. Christmas Eve is a big affair at Lady Cerise's, or so I hear. The last time I saw Wilma, she was going on and on about some sort of dinner party Cerise was throwing for them that work there. Only very special customers will be allowed to join in. Will always loved a big shindig, but, as Wilma, she ain't likely to start breaking heads and tearing up the furniture. You'll have to go join the party yourself, if you want to spend some holiday time with your sis." Bridget cast another glance at the sick man. "But I understand how you can't."

"Who are you going t'spend your Christmas with?" Jessie asked.

Bridget sat down in the empty chair. "Isn't it funny. On the day when you most want to be with your friends, that's the day they're all certain to be tied up. R.J. will have to run the show while Molly and Shamus keep company with their close friends in town. Cap won't be in. Slocum and him are partying with their stockmen's association over at one of the more distant ranches. Wilma is going to be too busy with an all-day Christmas party to give much time to someone like me, someone who won't pay her for it. Besides, I'm not comfortable hanging around a house of ill repute for too long."

Jessie grinned. "There was a time you were pretty partial to cathouses."

"You should talk! I remember you moving into Yvette's room back in New Orleans."

"I remember, too," said Jessie. "It isn't all that easy to forget what that gal could do. Or what she was willing to do. But you'd better look t'your opportunities, Bridget. Cap is gonna be rich someday."

"How far we've come that we can even be joshing one another about something like that! Can you imagine us out on the range, using our running iron on rustled calves by the light of a campfire and talking about marrying for money?"

"Yes, we've both come a long way from that range, my girl."

"Well, if you're interested, I don't care how much money Cap will get someday. I wouldn't put up with him for a second if money were the only good thing about him. And, hell, maybe I'll get rich first. But if you're so interested in other people's gentlemen friends, why isn't Paul keeping you warm tonight?"

"Because he's the second man on the totem pole. He has to mind the prisoners while Sheriff Dan is spending time with his wife and kid. He had to agree to work most of tomorrow, too. It's a shame how these family men load things on the backs of bachelors, just because they don't have anybody."

"Maybe that's what the Lord made lonely men for," Bridget conjectured.

"I was going t'go over to the jail and take Paul some Christmas cheer after the saloon closed tonight, but I don't know how I'll be able to now. I 'spect I'll be seeing him when the sheriff lets him off for a couple hours in the morning. Dan can't mind the office for long, though; there'll be a big Christmas dinner waiting for him back home, along with plenty of guests."

"It sounds like Paul hardly has a life of his own anymore," observed the redhead.

"It seems that way. But he told me that the town council might be letting the Sheriff hire another deputy in a week or so. That'll help Paul out a lot."

"What's Paul's plans, long term, I mean? To take over the marshal's job when Dan moves on?"

"Hard to say. I don't even know my own plans. This is the last place I should want to stay, but this town has a way of putting its hooks into a body. What about you? Is it Cap or R.J. who's keeping you here?"

"Neither exactly. They make a difference, sure, but they're not the whole deal."


Bridget regarded the sleeping man again. "Maybe our talk is disturbing our guest."

"Him? He's dead to the world. If he doesn't wake up himself in a few minutes, I'm gonna give him a good shaking. The soup'll get cold if he waits much longer to eat it."

"You're one hell of a nurse, Jessie."

"I ain't cut out for it, I'm afraid. But don't try to buck off my question. What keeps you in Eerie? Couldn't you gamble about as well in San Francisco as here?"

"Are you so eager to get rid of me?"

"Hell, no, I ain't. It's just that I'd feel like a freak if I was the only gal left in these parts who'd drunk that potion."

"But you wouldn't be. Laura, Wilma, and Maggie have all put down roots here. And Jane never talks about leaving. Anyway, I think she's interested in that lawyer, Milt. Unless I miss my guess, he reciprocates."

"Re---? You always was better at them big words than I was."

"There wasn't much to do at the home, so I read a lot. To understand authors like Sir Walter Scott, I had to check the dictionary more times than I could count."

"Yeah, sometimes I find big words in them songs I have t'learn and have t'go to the dictionary myself to figger 'em out. But, tarnation, Bridget, you dance around questions like a can-can girl. What keeps you here in Eerie?"

"Can-can girl again? Why are you so interested in getting me into a can-can line?"

"So I can whistle and hoot, what do you think? But stop playing that game of yours an' answer a simple question. What's keeping you in Eerie?"

"Why is so important to know?"

"Because something tells me that I should stay put in this guldurned town myself, and I keep thinking that I must be crazy."

"Why crazy?"

"Because here the people know all about me. I still can't help thinking that some of them are laughing at me up their sleeve at what happened to Jesse Hanks, the quick-draw artist."

"Maybe they're not. People can get used to strange things pretty quick. And there are so few women of marriageable age in these parts. Most men we meet see us as possibilities for courtship, even given our checkered pasts."

"Bridget, I swear that if you don't stop putting my questions off with questions of your own, I'm going to shoot you."

Bridget sighed. "Well, to tell the truth, I'm a lot like you. I can't help wondering whether people think that I'm strange. I can stand being a woman, but I can't stand being a freak. I've thought long and hard about going to some bigger town and starting a whole new life, making up some nice, conventional story about my past."

Jessie was grinning again.

"What?" Bridget asked.

"I was just thinking of that old saying, the one about the outlaw that got out of town so fast he forgot to take his real name with him."

"Now who's changing the subject?"

"Okay. Why haven't you pulled up stakes so far?"

"It's like I told R.J. I've got friends here -- not too many close ones, but friends. They know who I am, and they act like it doesn't matter. Out there in the world, I'd be living a lie, because I'd start every new friendship by lying to a person about who I am and where I came from. Eerie is a small place, though, and maybe it'll start feeling too small someday. Then it will be time to move on."

Jessie glanced out the window, at the street below. "The way I hear it, Eerie might fold up real quick like. It happens to a lot of towns that depend on placer gold or silver. Gold nuggets, or dust rich enough to pan for, just run out too damned quickly. Paul was saying that what Eerie needs is for somebody to hit a mother load and sell out to some big mining company. That will mean a lot of new people coming in, and a lot of new businesses starting up to sell to them."

Bridget shook her head thoughtfully. "I'm not so sure that something like that wouldn't ruin what's good about this town. If Eerie gets big, if a lot of outsiders move in, strangers are going to find out about us. We all might get our names in Harper's as a bunch of freaks. We'd get no peace, and we'd have no dignity. Then we'd have to head out to parts unknown and begin again."

Jessie regarded her. "Now that's cheery talk for Christmas, Bridget."

"Well, maybe we're just talking too much. That old man needs to be fed. We either have to get him awake now, or I'll have to take the soup back down to the kitchen to keep it warm."

Jessie sighed and leaned over her father to shake him awake. He grunted, but wouldn't come out of an extremely heavy slumber.

"Don't, Jessie," said Bridget. "Weren't not doctors. Sleep might be better for an ailing man than some beef broth and carrots. I'll just go put it back on the fire."

"No need," the singer said. "I can set it down on this here stove. That'll keep the stuff warm."

"Well, I suppose so. Anyway, I promised to give R.J. a hand while you're busy. That should take some of the pressure off you."

Jessie's brows went up. This was an unexpected boon. "Thanks, Bridget. You're a pard."

The gambler stood up, nodded amiably, and took her leave.

* * * * *
The old man abruptly coughed up some ugly matter and curled up on his side. Jessie went to him and wiped the stuff up into a rag, checking for blood in his spume, just like the Doc told her to. "Nothing there, thank the Lord." Her words startled her. "Now why the hell am I talking like I'm happy that old bastard ain't ready t'die yet?"

Frank Hank's eyes flickered open. "You still here, Jessie?"

"Yeah. You were sleeping like the dead a minute ago. It seems like you don't wake up 'less you're damned sight determined to." Jessie, though, remembered the old days when her pa used to snap awake if he heard so much as a worm crawling on a granite boulder outside. That peculiarity let him do the one good thing he pulled off during the war for Texas. A squad of Mexican raiders had tried to sneak up on his bivouacked company, and her Pa had given the alarm in time.

"You talk like a Texas girl. Are you?"

"I reckon I am. From near... Ft. Worth."

"That's real nice. There's good people back home. Folks came to Texas knowing that they'd have to fight for it, and they did." He became pensive for a moment. "You mind if I ask you something, missy?"

"Umm, that depends on the question."

"It's sad, what happened 'tween me and my boys. I feel better when I'm around a family that's close. Can I ask you how you get on with your ma 'n' pa?"

Jessie stepped back, put off balance by the question. How could she answer? She made a snap decision not to tell the truth. "Not... not as well as I'd've liked to," she said. "I-I ain't seen 'em for a while. I suppose they don't think I turned out too well, working in a saloon and all."

"I bet you miss 'em, though. I don't expect my boys ever gave me a second thought." He shook his head sadly. "Not after the way I let 'em down."

"What'd you do?" She braced herself for the answer. She'd always thought that he'd been too yellow to have any idea how a decent man should have behaved.

"For starters, I didn't give 'em much of a life," the man said. "After the War -- the War for Texas Independence, that is -- they promised us soldiers good land t'farm. I went back home and sold most of what I owned and borrowed some more t'get back out there and set up a homestead with Livy -- er -- that was my wife, Olivia. We wound up stuck with a piece of desert. We found out soon enough that it was only good for growing dust and cactus, but, by then, we had a baby on the way. That was William."

"Then what?"

"I tried harder. My old army commander had property near us. Capt. Stafford, he got some good land and had money t'lend. I borrowed a little for better equipment and seeds. They helped some, but the money I made never seemed t'cover more than the interest on my loan. We struggled on for three more years, then Livy... she gave me another boy. I thought that getting such a fine lad meant that our luck was gonna change. Both boys had hot tempers, though, so I knew they was brothers to the bone.

"Then..." Frank shook his head. "Our luck changed all right. It got worse. A year or so after our Jesse came, Livy got sick with the ague. The doc had medicine, and it did some good, but it cost a lot.

"Stafford offered t'help. He give me some papers t'sign. He said it was a loan. I can read a newspaper some, but what he gave me had this strange lawyer language on every page. I'd've needed a lawyer myself to make any sense of it. I couldn't afford a lawyer and, anyhow, I liked to take men at their word, so I signed."

The old man gave a whiney laugh. "I signed away my farm. All of a sudden, I was sharecropping what used t'be my own land. The worst thing was, I think the captain wanted to own me, not the land. The land was worthless, even for grazing. But if'n he controlled the land, he controlled me 'n my family."

Her pa had never talked about the days when he had been a freeholder. He had been too ashamed, Jessie now supposed. But he also never explained things, never admitted to how trapped he must have felt. "Couldn't you do anything to fight it? Stafford used trickery, didn't he?"

Frank gave a feeble sigh. "How can you fight the biggest man in the county? Stafford owned the judge, more or less. I owed him just about everything but the shirt on my back. If I ever so much as opened my mouth, the captain would have put me, my wife, and the boys on the road. How could I hire a lawyer for a years-long fight with no money even for food and shelter?" He actually winced from the ache of remembering. "The money gave out a couple years later, and Stafford told me I wasn't worth any more." He closed his eyes, as if in pain. "Then... Livy died."

Jessie shivered, forced to recall her mother's death. Jesse and Frank Hanks never had much to share, but they had shared that. She wanted to reach out, to take her father in her arms and comfort him, but she couldn't. All she could manage was to tell him, "I-I am so, so sorry." She placed her hand lightly on his shoulder.

"You're a sweet gal, Jessie. You're jes' the kind of daughter any man would be lucky to have. An' there's nothing wrong with your work. Singing is nice." He reached up and patted her hand. At his touch, she felt goose bumps run along her arm, but she refused to move it away.

"I went numb after Livy went away," the old man struggled on. "You kick a dog once, and he'll snarl, maybe even bite you. You keep on kicking him, kicking him harder and harder, and, after a while, he'll just hide under the porch when he sees you comin.'" He sighed again. "I was a dog hiding under the porch when my family needed a man."

With so many of the ghosts of the past rising, Jessie bit her lip. What she now realized was that she had been hurting so much back in those days that she never stopped to think how much her father, and even Will, were hurting, too. Neither of them talked about their pain, so she hadn't either. She'd kept it corked up, like a moth in a bitters bottle, but even if you put it in a cabinet, the bottle and the moth will still be there. The difference was that the moth would soon die if trapped; the pain never did.

Suddenly Jessie heard a low moan. She saw Frank turn his face into the pillow. He seemed about to pass out but kept murmuring. "Now my boys...they're in Eerie..."

'Damn!' she thought. 'He's so weak. I shoulda tried t'give him some of that soup when he was conscious. Some "ministering angel" I am!'

There came another rap at the door. Jessie cursed under her breath. Who was it this time? "Come in!" she said loudly. She didn't suppose that one little yell could wake the sleeper.

* * * * *

From the weight of the footfalls on the balcony, she had expected to see the bartender R.J., but man who moved in through the half-open door was about the last person she wanted to confront at a time like this.

"Miss... Hanks," the visitor said in low voice, but in just two words he conveyed a sentiment that she didn't care for. Despite his formidable stature, the Reverend Thaddeus Yingling stepped lightly toward the foot of the bed, as if he was used to tiptoeing around sleeping people. That was a trait both of parsons and burglars, Jessie thought. Also of fathers.

He was a big, sturdy man with neatly barbered hair. His face was dignified and stern, as usual. By reputation, he was a good preacher, but he was also a man who lived in certitude, and would dig in his heels if someone else had a differing opinion.

She stood up straight, in respect of his dignity. "What brings you here, Parson?" the singer asked.

"Can't you imagine, young lady? I was told that one of the doctor's patients was on the threshold of --" He noticed the man on the bed and didn't complete his sentence.

"Who's the da --, I mean, who went to fetch you?"

"That would be Mr. Nolan. Mr. O'Toole ought to have sent for me at once, but the Lord saw to it that word reached me nonetheless."

Jessie knew that blabbermouth Nolan. She'd even danced him with now and then at the Saturday night dances. "I should have guessed," she replied. "A man who plays such G-d-awful poker should keep his mind on his cards, so he wouldn't be putting so much of his hard-earned money back into circulation."

Yingling's expression hardened. He looked like he was going to rebuke her, but gave up the effort. No doubt he thought his eloquence would have been wasted on Eerie's most notorious saloon girl, a former gun slick and robber. Instead, he regarded the sleeping man. "I believe Mr. Nolan was right. It would seem that this unfortunate is not far from passing on into the presence of our Lord."

"I don't know about that. He was talking about his home back in Texas not more than two minutes before you came in," Jessie informed him.

"I've seen that phenomenon many times," the minister said. "Just before the unfortunate soul departs, he rallies and speaks lucidly to those who are with him. I believe it is the Heavenly Father's way of allowing a sufferer to say goodbye to his nearest and dearest. I came to help the good man make peace with his Maker before it's too late. Would you object if I tried to wake him?"

"He's taken to sleeping right heavily," Jessie said. "But I won't kick you in the leg if you try to roust him." The sooner the preacher said his piece to the man, the sooner he'd leave.

He shook his head and put his hat that he'd been holding down at the foot of the bed. Leaning above the sleeper's left ear, he said in a medium voice, "Sir!" He repeated the word louder when the patient stirred not at all. Disappointed, the minister glanced back toward Jessie. "Has he given a name?"

"Franklin. That's all I know."

"Mr. Franklin!" Yingling pronounced with booming resonance.

But his near-shout had no effect.

Not to be daunted, Yingling touched his middle and index finger to Frank Hanks' shoulder and poked him, at first tentatively, and then harder. It elicited no response.

"Oh, stand back," Jessie said impatiently as she wedged herself between the minister and the bed. At the touch of her shoulder, Yingling stepped back, as if he thought she were smeared with horse manure. Jessie didn't notice his reaction and gave her father a series of determined shakes.

The blonde gave up after about ten seconds.

"He'll wake when he's good and ready, and not before, I'm afeared."

"Miss Hanks, will you be so kind as to not jostle me like that?" Yingling requested sternly.

"Why? Did I scuff your boot?"

"My wife has an unusually acute sense of smell."

Jessie bridled. "My pa used to talk about 'parson's manners.' You ain't got 'em, Sir. What kind of gentleman would say a thing like that to a human being? I'll have you know I take a bath when I need one. I happen to fancy feeling clean."

Yingling sighed. "I was only saying that your perfume is very powerful and very ... florid."

"I see. The thing is, you don't want your missus to know where you've been. Nobody is keeping you here, Parson, not if you've got Christmas doings to attend to."

He looked down at her like a schoolmaster chiding a failed student. "How familiar are you with Christmas 'doings,' Miss Hanks? How long has it been since you attended Christmas services -- or any sort of Christian services?"

It was a cheeky question, but something about his tone told her that he expected an answer.

"I don't know. I never considered Christmas the best time to go to church. That was when me an' my brother liked to hunker down in some saloon to get drunk an'...." She trailed off.

"And seek the affections of ladies? Ladies of questionable propriety?" the minister finished for her.

The singer flared. "Why are you so interested? Maybe you even think it's funny what happened to Wilma and me."

"What happened to you was the will of the Lord, and you should contemplate its deeper meaning. And, if I may say it, there is nothing about you and your sister that I find the least bit amusing."

"Is that so? You're starting to grate on me, too, Parson. What is it about you that makes me think of that there Pharisee in the Book, the one who was so full of himself that he thanked the Lord for not making him a poor bum."

"Actually, Miss Hanks, the proud and foolish Pharisee thanked the Almighty for not making him a tax collector for the Romans. There are jobs that only persons of bad character will accept."

"And I s'pose you don't cotton much to people who work in saloons or cathouses?"

"I had hoped that you were only working here because you were a lost soul and did not know where else to turn, not because you enjoyed it. As for your poor sister, I have heard that a second drink of that bartender's potion drove her mad, and so she is not fully responsible for her choices."

Jessie balled her fists. This Thaddeus Yingling had a way that made a soul want to punch him. "If I was such a lost soul in your mind, why didn't you come on over and try to save me? You wouldn't even set foot into a saloon unless somebody was dying inside. All you do is look down you nose at people like me. Yeah, Reverend, I work in a saloon, but there are worst jobs." Then she caught herself. "And don't you go bad-mouthing Wilma neither. What's she's doing ain't so nice, and I wouldn't do it myself. But I'd say she took a step toward heaven the day she found something she liked better than robbing and killing."

"Not a large step, I'm afraid. Harlotry is the worst sin a woman can commit, short of murder," observed Yingling.

"Is that so? Didn't Jesus Christ Hisself protect the hooker Mary Magdalene from the townsfolk? In fact, He was right neighborly with murderers and robbers, too. He pardoned the thieves alongside Him on the crosses, or do I recollect wrongly?"

"No, that is approximately true. But Saint Luke says that He pardoned just one of the thieves, the one who had repented. The other only cursed at Him in his anguish and misery, and he was not forgiven. The pardon that comes through grace to an evil-doer must be built upon a foundation of repentance."

"I'd agree. But maybe more people would bring their repenting to you, Parson, if you didn't make them feel afraid t'do so."

"Why should anyone be afraid of me?"

"'Cuz you're too proud to go where the Lord Hisself went every day. You let people know when you think that they're not worth a barrel of shucks. Do you figger they don't catch on that if one of them ever owned up to being even worse than you s'posed, it would be like waving red flannels in front of an angry bull?"

All Yingling said in reply was, "People come to me because they desire guidance in finding their way, and I try to open their eyes."

"I suspect all you do is nag them into seeing things your way. And if people ain't persuaded, you show them the door, don't you?"

The minister shook his head. "When I see a soul so hopelessly lost as you, Miss Hanks, it hurts me. Experience tells me that the path you follow is its own punishment."

"It hurts you, does it? And what do you s'pose is this terrible path that I follow? If some people do their best to give men a place to rest and a reason to smile, I don't see why it hurts you or the Lord in Heaven at all. What makes you so good at picking out who the saints and the sinners are? Shucks, I recall that even saints sometimes got on the dim side of the Lord. Didn't St. Peter hisself deny he knew Mr. Jesus Christ three times in one day --" Jessie broke off very abruptly.

Yingling saw the change in the young woman. He wondered whether the Lord's truth had suddenly dawned on her. "Miss Hanks," he said, more warmly than before, "why are you here in this sickroom instead of working downstairs? May one dare to hope that it is because your better nature has called you act as the good Samaritan on behalf of a nameless stranger?"

Jessie turned away and went to stare out the window, but all she saw was her own reflected face. "Nameless stranger," he had said. Three times tonight she had denied knowing Mr. Franklin Hanks, her own father. "I know him not," she had said, if in words less fancy.

"Miss Hanks?"

She swallowed hard. Damn! She felt cool beads of water in the inner corners of both her eyes. The next things she knew, the reverend was standing by her side.

"I've made you cry; I'm sorry."

Jessie looked him straight in the eye. "I don't ever cry!" she declared.

"Of course. But let me say that I do not believe that this is the right time to rebuke you. Tonight you are doing something that is praiseworthy. Think about how fine it feels to perform Christian charity. And consider how this night -- the most blessed of all nights -- has allowed your better angels to emerge."

She chuckled ruefully. "Well, I only hope they don't go too far. I figger that I still have a use for them."

He smiled at her little joke. "Well, Sister Jessica, I came to help this man, and it's high time that I performed my services."

He went to the bedside and lowered his head to the sleeper's chest, so that his ear was just above the man's heart. Yingling frowned, as if he could detect no life in the mortal vessel. He sighed then and, straightening up, appeared to steel himself for the work ahead.

From his pocket, the reverend took a small book of prayer, and then he crossed to the stove to pick up the chair. This he set next to the nightstand. Sitting down, he found his page and began to read:

"O Almighty G-d, with whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prisons, we humbly commend the soul of this thy servant, our dear brother, into thy hands, as into the hands of a faithful Creator, and most merciful Savior. We most humbly beseech thee, that it may be precious in thy sight. Wash it, we pray thee, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb, that was slain to take away the sins of the world; that whatsoever defilements it may have contracted in the midst of this miserable and erring world, through the lusts of the flesh, or the wiles of Satan. Being purged and done away, it may then be presented pure and without spot before thee. Teach us who survive, in this and in other like daily spectacles of mortality, to see how frail and uncertain our own condition is. And so to number our days, that we may seriously apply our hearts to that holy and heavenly wisdom; whilst we live here, which may in the end bring us to life everlasting; through the merits of Jesus Christ, thine only Son, our Lord. Amen."

He continued his vigil afterwards, clenching his hands in prayer, but these prayers were whispered in very low tones, and Jessie couldn't make them out. As infuriating as Thaddeus Yingling was as a human being, he probably knew his stuff as a preacher. She hoped that he could actually do some good for her father's soul on its way out of the world.

A few minutes later, Yingling lowered his hands and turned in Jessie's direction. "Do you wish me to stay for a while and help bear your burden as well, Miss Hanks?"

She didn't have to think about that one. "No, you don't have to. Not if you've gone and done everything you can for him. Like you say, he's my burden."

He studied at her through narrowed eyes. "Do you know this man?" the minister asked. "Is this a person whom you... hurt... before, when you were an outlaw?"

She swore in silence. Yingling was smarter than he seemed. She didn't dare say more and get herself deeper into the muck. She didn't want to deny her father again, so instead she said nothing.

"I see," Yingling said. He stood up and recovered his hat from the wrinkled quilt. "Jessica, if ever you should need someone to talk to, you will not find my door closed to you, though -- being not as good as our Savior -- I might not always find my way to yours."

"Yeah, Preacher, I understand," she replied, breaking her silence. "But it's getting late. Maybe you ought to see to your kids before they have to go to bed." She smiled. "I bet they're as excited as they can be about what presents they're going to find on Christmas morning."

"I know they are. This is a night when we are blessed to be with those who are so much the best part of our lives. Good night, Miss Hanks. May you find the gift that will give you the most joy on Christmas morning, also."

She didn't glance after him as the door opened and his footsteps faded on the stairs.

* * * * *

Jessie had gone back to stand above her father. "I hope he did you some good, Pa. I should have thought of calling for him myself, though, if there were two preachers in town, I probably would have sent for the other one.

"Well, Pa, I'm not much good at praying. I never put much stock in it when I saw that for all the praying we done, nothing much came out of the sky except dust and trouble. I've robbed and I've killed. The best I can say now is that I sing to drinkers and gamblers. I don't know if I can ever go where Ma has already gone, but after all the trouble you had, Pa, I hope you get there. I know that she'll want t'see you, though I ain't exactly sure why. I'm sorry I didn't know her for as long as you did. But maybe knowing her longer only made it harder for you to lose her."

He just kept sleeping, or was he dead? "If I can't help you to Heaven with a really good prayer, Pa, maybe I can set you on your way with that favorite Christmas song of yours." She swallowed down the lump in her throat, wiped her eyes and her nose, and began:

"I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

"And what was in those ships all three,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?
And what was in those ships all three,
On Christmas Day in the morning?

"The Virgin Mary and Christ were there,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

"Pray, wither sailed those ships all three,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
Pray, wither sailed those ships all three,
On Christmas Day in the morning?

"O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

"And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

"And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

"And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

"Then let us all rejoice again,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
Then let us all rejoice again,
On Christmas Day in the morning."

With the song finished, she paused for breath. Her father was still asleep, but not sleeping comfortably. He kept tossing and turning, moaning as he moved. His respiration was short and had a rasp to it, but at least he was showing more life than he had before she had sung to him. Jessie wondered if some miracle would happen in the end and he was going to pull through.

It sure seemed unlikely.

'He's gotta wake up one more time," she told herself. "He come here 'cause of that story 'bout me and Will getting shot. What the hell am I gonna tell him? Will I have t'lie to him and say that his kids are dead, that he's all alone in the world? But, dammit, he's too sick t'understand about Wilma an' me. He'd just argue that I was trying to make a fool of him, and he doesn't have breath enough left t'do that.'

"I wish I could tell you the truth, Pa, even if it made you laugh at me. You could have your revenge for them last words I says t'ya when I stalked off all them years ago. I called you a damned milksop and let you know that I hated you for it.

"Ain't that a joke on me?" she laughed sadly. "I told him he wasn't no kind of a real man, the way he kept acting." She looked down at her body, the way her dress was tailored to show off her nubile curves, and to display the cleavage that fixed men's eyes. "Whatever he was, he was a lot more of a man than I am now."

She shook her head. "I ain't gonna tell him who I am, no sir. There's no way I'd let him have the last laugh on me."

But then she remembered that she might be losing him in a minute, or an hour. Would giving the man who had once been the center of her life something to laugh about on this terrible night be so bad? The trouble was, that kind of laugh would be a mean laugh that might undo some of the good work that the preacher had tried to do. But did the parson really know anything about getting people up to heaven? Should she ask him about helping her fix up her own life on Earth, so that she could finally get to know her ma? She didn't think so. 'I always solved my own problems before,' Jessie told herself. 'I'll fix this one, too.'

"W-Water," the man said.

* * * * *

"Ohhh, thank ya, missy, for the drink," Frank said, handing the girl the empty glass. "I wanna thank ya, too, for letting me prattle on the way I did before. You're quite a gal, Jessie."

Jessie tried to smile. "I just figured ya needed t'get a few things off your chest."

"Shoulda said something years ago." He made a sour face. "Shoulda told my boys all about them important things back then, instead of bending your pretty ears now."

Jessie shook her head. "I-I don't mind. You keep talking, if you want." She slipped into the chair that Yingling had set by the bed. There was no easy way to ask the next question. "I've been wondering. What happened after... after your wife..." She couldn't say the word. After so many years, she still felt the ache of that unbearable day.

"I barely saw my boys after that, at least not in the daytime. They had to work the land as best they could. Stafford decided I was to be like one of his black slaves. Anytime he needed something done, he'd come over and tell me t'do it. I told him I needed t'work m'own land, but he just laughed. 'My land, you mean. You work it for me. You do what I say, and I'll count your time as payment, same as I do the crops you bring in.' I didn't trust him, but I didn't have no choice.

"I tried t'make it up to my boys. When I could, I'd take 'em with me. And I saved up scrap wood from some of them jobs. I could whittle pretty good, so I carved some toys for them, a bird whistle for little Jesse and a set of toy soldiers for 'em both."

He smiled wistfully. "Jesse played that thing all the time. He sounded awful. But he loved music, and every time there was music playing, he wanted to hear it. That's why I tried to take him into town during the Fourth of July celebrations whenever Stafford left me the day free. Jess used to sing along with the patriotic songs, sometimes he even made up his own words to 'em." He gave a hoarse laugh. "That lad had jes' about the worst singing voice I ever heerd."

Jessie's mind drifted back to twenty years earlier. She'd forgotten about that whistle, even though she'd kept it even after she left home in bad temper. She had finally lost it years later, when a posse came in the night, and she had to run to her horse, leaving everything behind.

"Doing hard work like that ain't being a bad father," she had to admit.

"The pity is, them toy soldiers just made matters worse. Ya see, Stafford had a boy of his own, Forry. The kid was a mean bugger, bad as his pa. He liked to pick on the younger kids, do all sorts of bad things. He steered clear of thems that had big brothers; they gave it right back to the little bast -- 'scuse my language, to Forry."

"Sounds like he deserved it." Damned right he did; that and more!

"I thought so, but his pa didn't. He had one of those big brothers, a boy of 16, put in jail for a week, just as a warning. He put the word out that a week in jail was the least he'd be doing after that. That boy had just scared Forry, made him apologize to the little girl he'd hit. Stafford said that any roughneck that actually hurt his precious son would wind up in the Orphan's Home. Stafford gave a lot of money t'politicians, and he always got his way.

"Forry walked around like he was king of the world after that. He told people they should call him Mr. Stafford, like his pa, and damned if the captain didn't back him up.

"He came round one day while I was working on a pump Stafford used t'fetch water from the river. Will and Jesse was there, playing with them toy soldiers. I heard yelling and came running out t'see what was wrong.

"Will was a lot younger'n Forry, but he was beating the hell out of him. Jesse was climbing out of the river wet as a rat. I yelled for them t'stop and asked what was going on. Forry gave me some cock'n bull story that had to be a lie. Then he says how his father'd be only too happy to put my boy away before he killed somebody.

"Them two was all the family I had, all that was left of Livy. I kissed that little bastard's -- forgive me for saying that."

"There's nothing to forgive. He was a bastard."

"That he was -- still is, matter of fact, but I kissed his ass like it was pure gold. I gave him them toy soldiers, too, when I saw that he wanted 'em. I'd have done anything t'keep him from setting his pa after my boys.

"I ain't never saw hurt like I saw in Jesse and Will's eyes that day. I tried t'explain, but they wouldn't hear of it. They both hated me from that day on, and I don't know as I could blame 'em for it.

"Two weeks after that, Forry ran into Will by the livery stable in town. He was dumb enough to tease Will about them toy soldiers, and it cost him a tooth. Everybody said that Forry started the fight, but Stafford had Will put in jail overnight, an' sent to the Orphans' Home with one of the deputies the next day."

Jessie's hands formed into fists. "Little bastard." All these years, and she still hated the Staffords for what they had done to Will.

Her father laughed. "He got his, though. They caught him trying to take a knife from the general store a couple weeks later. Stafford gave Riley, the man that owned the store, enough money so he wouldn't press charges. Everybody was happy -- 'cept Forry, when he found out that everybody was whispering that he was a thief. He guessed that Riley had been running him down to people. That explains what happened next.

"A couple nights later, the store catched fire. They got it in time, but they found proof that it was Forry that started the blaze -- one of them toy soldiers he stole from my boys was lying there, by where the fire'd started. His name was mud in the countryside from then on." He began to laugh again until the laughter turned to a wracking cough. "Served him -- cough -- right, too."

Jessie poured more water into the glass and held it out to her father. After a few moments, he managed to stop coughing. He wiped his mouth on the rag and took a drink.

"Thanks, gal," he finally said. "Forry didn't want them soldiers after that. He set fire t'all the ones at his house. I asked the marshal for the one they found at the store. He knew how Forry'd gotten them, so he handed it over. It was the only favor that man ever did me."

"I figured I'd wait a while before I gave Jesse that last toy soldier, let him have a chance t'get over being so mad at me." He shook his head sadly. "Only he never did. I got afraid that if he ever saw the soldier, it would just open the old wound.

"He all but cursed at me the day he turned 16 and stomped off t'find his brother. That was 'bout a year before the War of Succession. I heard that he went first to Austin and stole a horse. I thanked the Lord that he'd been decent enough not t'steal one from any of our close-in neighbors.

"He jes' wanted to hook up with Will. He knew that Will had joined with the Rangers when he got outta the Home. Will never so much as sent us a letter, but Jess swore he'd track 'im down. I heard he got into the Rangers, hisself, but he didn't like it much and hightailed it out after a little while.

"I kept that soldier anyway. In fact..." He fumbled under the low collar of his union suit. "...I got it right here." He took out a dark brown leather cord that looped around his neck. Jessie marveled that she hadn't noticed the rude necklace before.

Something was attached to the cord, and he held it as carefully as if it were the key to a strongbox. He looked at it intensely for a moment, then handed it to Jessie. As if in a daze, Jessie's hand went out. Then she drew it back abruptly. "Go ahead," the old man said, "take a look."

The young woman could barely keep her hand from shaking as she received the figure. She recognized the toy immediately.

"That's...the last survivor...of the soldiers...I carved," Frank Hanks said. Jessie looked up. His voice had begun to fade.

Jessie hesitated to try to make him say more. 'He needs to rest,' she thought, 'but I gotta get him talking again soon. I-I gotta know.'

She placed the toy upon her father's chest and stood up. "Listen, old timer, I've had some soup keeping warm all this time. I'll scoop some into your water cup. That'll make it easier for you to drink."

While spooning the cup half-full at the stove, she asked over her shoulder, "Why'd you carry that soldier around all these years, anyway? What was you gonna do with it?" When he didn't answer, she turned about and brought the vessel to him, it's its side dripping slightly. But the man's face was slack and his breathing very slight. He was asleep again. Would he wake up this time?

"You poor old coot. You just ain't long for this world, are ya? If you came here hoping t'be buried next to your boys, you're in for a letdown. Will and I ain't dead yet, and we might not even die and be buried hereabouts after you're gone."

She set the cup down on the nightstand, on top of one of the rags. "You gotta come 'round again, Pa. I have to know why you carried that toy soldier with you for almost a dozen years."

Suddenly the sleeping man startled awake as if struck. His eyes were suddenly fever-bright, and almost wild. "Jesse! Jesse! I can hear you!"

"Yes, Pa, I'm here." She winced at her slip, but was it such a bad mistake? What harm could it do now?

His had shot out with surprising quickness and took her wrist. "Thank the Lord, Jesse. I couldn't die without seeing my best child again."

She startled. He was staring right up into her face, seeing her not as she was, but as the prodigal son who had given up on him more than a decade before.

"I came to find you, Jesse, you and your brother, both. I had t'ask you two t'forgive me. I wanted to bring this soldier back to you." He took the cord from around his neck and pushed it into her captured hand. "It's jes' about the only decent thing I was ever able to give you, boy, and the only thing I was able to keep for your legacy." Frank Hanks shook his head. "It ain't much for a whole life lived, Jess, but if you understand that it means I love you, maybe you'll think kindly on it -- and on me."

He was out of his head, Jessie knew; it didn't matter what she said to him now. She took his arm with her free hand and gave it a squeeze. "I hear you -- Pa." She blinked her eyes, trying to hold back the tears she felt rising. "It means a lot t'me. It means everything t'me. And I want you t'know that now I understand what happened better. I forgive you, and when Will comes, I know he'll forgive you, too."

It felt so fine to be able to talk to him without the pretense of being someone else, even if he didn't understand a word she was saying. "It was wrong to call you names, just because you didn't act like the father I dreamed of having. A boy thinks that his pa can do anything, can make anything right. He thinks his pa can protect him from all the coyotes that come in the night, all the monsters that want to eat him up.

"Will 'n me didn't stop to think that you were only a man. A few years and a little more muscle don't make a pa much different than his young'uns. He's afraid of his own coyotes, his own monsters. I don't hate you, Pa. I hate the people who made you less of a man than you wanted to be for us."

Frank Hanks smiled the awful smile of the very sick. "It's nice of ya t'say so, Jesse. I knew you was a good boy. Hearing you say you don't hate me no more makes it all better." His eyes were closed, but he kept talking, though the strength of his voice started to fall again. "I'd be happy in my grave just knowing I have a family."

He sighed, and Jessie heard the spume gurgling deep in his chest. "Right now, I think I'd jes' like t'rest some more. Thank you for forgiving me. That's all I wanted ever since the day you hiked away. I can finally have peace." He was soon asleep again, but his breathing had never sounded so labored.

"I do forgive ya, Pa," Jessie whispered. "It was an awful life in Texas, but you tried to make the best of things, the way you saw 'em...."

Her eyes opened wide.

Was it her imagination, or had the old man's slack lips altered into a smile at the instant that she had said what she had been keeping locked up in her heart?

But he was giving no other sign that he was hearing her, so after a few minutes Jessie stood up and put the toy soldier on the nightstand, behind the cup. Then she dragged the chair over to the stove. Feeling an awful weight lifted, but yet being very tired, she sat down and leaned against the back. Before she realized it, sleep had overtaken her.

Christmas Day, 1871
Something woke Jessie up. She glanced over at the small clock, ticking away on the bedroom door. It was almost two.

Then there was another knock, and she realized that it had been that which had roused her. "Come in," she answered sleepily.

Wilma opened the door and walked in. Her hair was messed, and she was wearing a warm shawl over a fancy yellow dress. She looked like she had crossed over in a hurry, though Jessie had sent for her before nine o' clock. "Why's it so hot in here?" she asked, taking off the shawl and tossing it over a hook.

"We had to keep the room warm; it was important."

"What's all so danged important?" the striking brunette asked. "I had t'hurry a man out of my bed so I could come over t'see you. And the wind..." She shivered and pulled the wrap around her. "Seemed like it kept getting colder the whole time I was walking over here."

Forgetting all admonishments, Jessie pointed towards the bed. "It's him. Somebody found him on the trail and brought him in."

Wilma took a good look, then shrugged. "So?"

"So? Don't you see who it is?"

Wilma looked again and then shook her head. "I don't know as I ever seen him before. Who is he?"

"Who --? It's Pa, can't you tell that?"

The brunette looked at her sister incredulously. "You're crazy, Jess, or you've been dreaming in that chair. Wake up and really look at him."

Jessie did look. The man in the bed wore the same clothes, but he was years younger than Frank Hanks, a solidly built man with reddish brown hair. She moved in a daze to the bedside and sought for signs of life in the stranger. He wasn't breathing.

She touched his cool flesh, searching for a pulse in the big vein on the side of his neck. Nothing. "He's dead, but... I-I swear, Pa was in that bed before. I recognized him as soon as they brought him in. Molly helped me put him to bed. If she was here, she'd tell ya."

"She is here," said Wilma. "Her and Shamus and Jane're downstairs closing up for the night. You want me t'get her?"

When Jessie nodded, Wilma walked to the door and shouted down, "Hey, Molly, could you come here for a minute?"

Jessie heard rapid footfalls on the steps. "What are ye doing yelling like that?" Molly asked as she walked in a moment later. "Ye'll be waking that poor man."

"Ain't nothing gonna wake him," Wilma told her. "He's dead." Behind her, Jessie nodded in agreement.

Molly crossed herself. "The poor soul. I'll be sending Jane over t'fetch the Doc and Stu Gallagher." Gallagher was the town undertaker.

"Before ya go, Molly," Jessie interrupted, "take a look at him. Is this the same man they brought in?"

Molly stared at the man, frowned, and then placed Jessie under a close gaze. "Of course, 'tis the same person. The very one. Why the devil are ye even asking?" She cocked an eyebrow. "Are ye playing some game with me, Jessie?"

"No, I..." Jessie rubbed her eyes and looked at the man... the body... again. It was still a stranger and not her pa. "I -- ah, I just woke up. You wouldn't believe what I dreamed."

Molly regarded her curiously. She could see that something was troubling Jessie. "I have t'be going back down t'help me Shamus," she said reluctantly. "That must have been some awful dream. Would ye be staying with yuir sister till the Doc comes, Wilma?" The latter nodded in consent, and the older woman bustled out the door.

Wilma sat down on the window ledge. "Now what the hell was you talking about, Jess? Why'd you think this tramp was Pa?"

Jessie pressed a knuckle to her lips. Her glance betrayed her utter bafflement. "He looked just like him. I-I swear he did. We talked. He knew all 'bout us, too. Our farm and how bad that land was, Captain Stafford and Forry, 'bout Ma... dying like she done, even about them toy soldiers he carved."

Wilma rolled her eyes. "Don't you see? He didn't tell you nothing 'cept what you already knew. You wasn't only seeing things, Jess, you was hearing things."

Jessie took another disbelieving look at the man on the bed. "M-Maybe." What else could explain it? A ghost? 'I ain't never seen anything I supposed was a ghost,' she thought.

She sighed and shook her head wearily. "I guess I've been thinking 'bout Pa some lately. This always was his favorite time of year. Then, tonight, Joe Ortlieb asked me t'sing 'I Saw Three Ships' during my show."

Wilma nodded. "That always was the carol Pa liked best. I can see how it might set you off."

Jessie went back to the chair and sank into it. "Maybe it could. D'you think?"

"Yeah, that's just what I think."

"But he told me about those bad times from the way he saw them, how so much of it wasn't really his fault. How could a dream make so much sense?"

"Maybe you've been trying to think of some good reasons why he acted the way he did, and tonight you imagined he was speaking those same ideas right back at you."

"I just don't know," Jessie said with a forlorn sigh. Her memories were so intense. "Do you remember that last Christmas when we were all together, the one when he made those toy soldiers for us?"

All of a sudden, Jessie remembered something. "Wait a minute, Wilma, I know how to prove whether I was dreaming or not."

Wilma sat up straighter. "How?"

Without answering, Jessie went to the nightstand and searched behind the cup of cold soup. Wilma saw her expression of relief and vindication as she snatched up something small attached to a looped cord. Jessie displayed her prize for Wilma to see, her hand trembling so strongly that the object practically jumped off her palm.

"Look, Wilma. Do you see this, or am I still imagining things?"

The cathouse girl pushed herself away from the window and came closer. "Say, that looks a mite familiar," she admitted.

"It's one of the toy soldiers that Pa carved for us, Wilma. He really was here!"

Wilma scowled. "Well, I'll be damned if it doesn't look just like... nah, it can't be." She shook her head emphatically. "It just can't be. It's nothing but some kid's toy. It stands to reason that if anybody -- anybody at all -- carved a soldier it would have to look something like that."

"No! It is one of Pa's. I-I'd swear it is. I recognized it the second he showed it to me. Remember how Forry took all our other soldiers? I found this one the grass, where we was playing Alamo. I kept it hidden, so that skunk wouldn't take this one, too. But when I heard a couple days later that Forry had gotten into trouble at Riley's general store, I sneaked into town and set the place on fire. Then I left the Pa's soldier there, where someone could find it, so they'd think that Forry had started that fire to get revenge on Riley!"

"Yeah, I remember you telling me. I always thought it was a dodge almost worthy of me," Wilma said with an admiring smile.

"But right here in this room Pa told me that the sheriff handed it over to him, and he kept it, hoping he would see us again t'give it back to us. And he did, tonight. He called me his boy, and he handed it to me."

"But that wasn't Pa!" Wilma insisted. "Even you can see that now."

"But, for a while, he looked like Pa and talked like Pa. And he gave me this soldier. Here it is. Only, don't ask me how it got here. Everything seemed to be making sense, up until you came in."

"Now I like that! I'm here by your invite, when I'd much rather be in a warm bed." Wilma took the toy soldier from Jessie for a closer look. After a moment, she handed it back with a shrug.

"You must be dizzy, Jessie. Are you trying to say that you've just had one of those Christmas miracles that Ma used t'tell us about?"

Jessie turned away and faced the window. Wilma's sarcasm exasperated her. Her sister hadn't been there, hadn't seen and spoken to him, and now she refused to believe.

Then Jessie gave a long sigh. She wasn't sure that she believed it herself.

Wilma, when she spoke again, used a softer tone. "You need a good night's sleep, Jessie. Maybe things will look a lot different in the morning."

"M-maybe," the blonde muttered. She was beginning to find it impossible to think with the agility that this situation called for. She was so tired.

"Sure, they will," Wilma told her confidently.

Before Jessie could say anything, they heard someone coming up the stairs. "Jessie, it's me, Doc Upshaw."

"C'mon in," Wilma answered. "You got here fast," she complimented.

Doc walked in. His shirttail was out and his shoes were untied. It took less than five minutes for him to examine the man and pronounce him dead from pneumonia and exposure. He had just finished when the undertaker entered, accompanied by R.J. and Shamus.

"Maybe he won't have to lie under a blank tombstone," said R.J.

"What'd'ya mean?" asked Jessie.

"One of the men who saw him downstairs thought he recognized him. He finally remembered that the man's name was Johnny Eckland. Says the fellow came in just a few days ago to start looking for silver. He showed up at Horace Styron's hardware store to buy supplies. A damned reckless thing, if you ask me, to go up in those hills with no shelter set up, what with the weather getting touchy and all."

"If that's his name, it'll carve as good as any," Gallagher adjudged.

Upshaw agreed. Shamus, R.J., and Gallagher carted the man down to the undertaker's wagon. With a tip of his hat, the doc said, "Ladies," in the way of a farewell, and followed after the other men. The girls watched him go before they said anything more.

Then Wilma took Jessie by her bare arm. "A man died of something in that bed," she said. "Let's get outta here."

Jessie, still holding the toy soldier, followed her sister to the room she shared with Jane. Wilma closed the door behind them. Jane was apparently still downstairs helping to lock up the saloon.

"I could sleep for a week," Jessie said and really looked like she could.

"You do that. I got me a bed of my own t'get back to." Wilma had announced this with a sly smile.

Jessie put the toy soldier down on her table. "Wilma..." she said slowly.


Jessie was looking at her sister with a strange intensity, and then, without another word, she stepped up close and took Wilma in a hug. "Whatever it was that happened here tonight," she whispered, "Pa is dead. I feel it in my gut. Us two is all that each other has got left."

"Speak for ---" Wilma began, but let her witticism trail off as she guessed what her sister needed right now and joined in the hug. When she spoke again, her tone had changed. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Jess. We been guarding each other's back through hell and high water, on and off, for better than ten years. I guess we'll keep right on doing that. Nothing's changed tonight, kid." She let go of Jessie and stepped back. "Merry Christmas, Little Sister."

"And merry Christmas to you, too, Big Sister," Jessie said with a wistful grin. "Well, I gotta get out of this rig or in a few minutes I'll be sleeping in it. If I tore it, it would cost me a lot t'get fixed." She reached behind her back to undo the buttons of her blue silk dress. In her fatigue, her fingers were clumsy.

"Let me help with that," Wilma offered. "I've not only had a lot more practice than you getting out of women's clothes," she quipped while performing the courtesy, "but -- back when I was a man -- I had more practice getting women out of their clothes, too."

"The hell you did!" protested Jessie.

"Sure I have. We both had the itch, but I'm older than you, and I had more time for scratching."

"At least my gals were willing," Jessie joked in return.

"Don't spread that rumor around, or it'll ruin your reputation as a bad'un."

The blonde let out a weary moan. "I'll be dreaming of ghosts all night, I'm afraid," Jessie said when the last button was open. She held the unsupported fabric up in front of her. Her legs felt like Indian rubber. Stifling yawns, the girl pealed the garment down to her ankles and stepped out of it. She was now wearing only a low-cut corset, silk stockings, and a pair of white drawers.

"You sure are a pretty one.  No wonder Paul struts around like a peacock, knowing you're
sweet on him," Wilma said, giving her sister's hand a quick squeeze. "You'll see, Jess. It'll all make sense in the morning. I'll come over around about noon. That'll give me time to get back for the real action at the house party we're throwing. We'll have one of Maggie's lunches, and I'll pass along the present I found for you." Then she added, "You better have something ready for me, too, or else I'll get sore." Then she nodded farewell and headed for the door.

After Wilma was gone, Jessie drifted to the window, her mind crowded with puzzle pieces that just didn't fit together. 'Maybe Pa came because he had a present for us, too,' she told herself. 'I'd like to think that he had.'

The young woman lingered in front of the glass panes long enough to see Wilma walking briskly on the street below, back toward Lady Cerise's. It was then, as her gaze was drawn to the saloon lantern across the street, that she realized that it was snowing -- and that it had been snowing for some while -- maybe the whole time Wilma had been with her.

"Well, I'll be damned," the blonde murmured. "Snow in Eerie, and on Christmas. That will make it a day that the town will remember for a long time to come. If only bells were ringing it would be perfect, but, oh, well...."

Jessie looked back into the room and to the clean bed that beckoned her. "I think you're right, Wilma," she said to herself. "Everything will make more sense in the morning, more sense than ever could sink into your hard skull." She removed her corset and slipped her long, muslin nightgown over her head.

On impulse, Jessie sat down at the table and regarded the toy soldier upon it. It was a simple thing, but it brought back so many memories -- and not many of them were good. But it made her think about family, and that part seemed to fill her with an unaccustomed warmth and satisfaction. "Thank you, Pa," she whispered. "You knew what this meant, and now I know, too. Thank you for caring enough to bring it to me."

She lifted up the wooden figure and regarded its intricate details before setting it back down. What a good whittler her father had been. How had he ever found time to carve so many of these soldiers? Why would a man so loaded down with trouble every day of his life even want to do such a thing for a couple of scruffy boys who were always giving him trouble and sass?

She stood up and returned to the window.  Why had he?  She thought she knew the answer and whispered into the darkness above the saloon across the street, "Thank you for loving us, Pa. And Merry Christmas, wherever you are."

* * * * *

Author's Note, continued: We like to think that Christmas is a time when Heaven casts an especially interested eye on the doings of mortals. There's an old tradition in England of ghosts and spirits running loose at Christmas and of telling stories about them doing so. Dickens' tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is the most famous of the genre. So we replayed the Eerie Christmas of 1871, this time seeing it from the point of view of one those at the very heart of events -- Jessie Hanks.

--- Christopher Leeson

The End

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