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Christmas in Bakerstown

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Out here we don’t live by old traditions. Things that make sense back East and up North don’t mean nothing in cattle country. In those places Christmas is a time of snow, trees covered with candles, sleigh rides. Out here snow don’t fall, the trees are cottonwoods, and a sleigh would bust a runner in 10 feet.

 

Which isn’t to say that we don’t have traditions. We just have to make up our own. Like the way we celebrate Christmas in Bakerstown. Makes respectable folks sniff, but it’s a true expression of joy and good will of the season if ever there was one, and it started the same year we had the trouble at Connie Morton’s place.

 

#

 

Bakerstown, Texas, population 221 (as of December, Year of Our Lord 1883, and only when the goddamn cattle drive isn’t coming through to double our numbers and surround us with thousands of stinking longhorns) is situated in the High Plains area of this great state, up in the northern part bordered by the Oklahoma Territory. This information isn’t of any use except to explain why, all too often, the rain that comes down in rivers and torrents and goddamn floods in other places doesn’t affect us. This was a problem, because the whole damn year had seen us smack in the middle of a dry spell. Now it was December, so it was cold and dry.

 

Farmers were angry, and the ranchers too – cattle and crops both need water – but wasn’t anything to be done but dig deeper wells and load up barrels from the Red River. They dried up and died, cattle and wheat both. Both sides got ugly over the little water that was there to be had – and some farmers and ranchers died too in the fights.

 

Fortunately the bad blood didn’t flow as generously in town proper. Bakerstown may be an ugly little cowtown riddled with drunks and whores on good days and cattle drovers on bad ones, but it also has the force of law guiding it. Wish I could take the credit for it, but it’s none of my doing. (Oh, almost forgot. Mayor Strade here, but only one chap calls me that – most in Bakerstown just call me Les or Lester.)  We have two lawmen – Sheriff Lock, a tall quiet clean-shaven chap who never carries a gun and never seems to miss what he’s looking for, and a squint-eyed son of a bitch who always carries a gun and never seems to miss what he’s aiming at (new folks don’t make the mistake of calling Doc “deputy” twice).

 

Ever since he and Doc had ridden into town that wet January in 1881, Lock had been changing things round here (even before he accepted the tin star I gave him). The first and biggest thing he did was to enact a law requiring everybody to check his firearms at the sheriff’s office when they came into town for business. Got a lot of howls from everybody, of course; but after a few months of this, the shooting deaths dropped like crazy and it was actually safe to walk past a brothel or saloon in the middle of the day. More women came into town than just the whores and card-sharps, and everyone was doing better business. Knifing deaths went up a bit, but not nearly at the same rate as the shooting toll, and as Doc said it was a hell of a lot easier to clean and sew up a knife-gash than a bullet-hole. (Yeah, that beady-eyed gunslinger’s a real doctor.) Doc still carries his Colt, but since he’s a loco sumbitch who once picked up a rattlesnake in his bare hand and threw it at someone who threatened the sheriff no one says a bad word about it. And no one much threatens the sheriff, either, after that happened.

 

But this drought meant Doc was busier than the Sheriff. Lock could think and think all he wanted, but that wasn’t gonna make it rain. Meantime folks was shooting each other at the riverbank scuffling for water in an ever-smaller stream, and knifing each other in town over scanter saloon rations (less water means the barkeeps can’t make as much of the stomach-rot that passes for whiskey for most of our dedicated drunks). Doc had his hands full outshooting fellas he’d come to arrest, or sewing up knife-gashes after stopping a brawl – and he’d once had to cold-cock a man who’d started drinking his wound-cleaning alcohol.

 

Most of the squabbles were the same everywhere. But one of them got interesting.

 

Three days before Christmas I was visiting the sheriff’s office to bend Lock’s ear about instigating some sort of town holiday observation (the way Lock had changed our July Fourth celebration from yet another day of drinking and gunfire to include a horse-race). “Stay indoors,” Lock suggested when a man burst in at the door, gasping and covered with sweat and stinking of horse.

 

Doc, who’d been seated at the desk and loading his ammo-belt, was on his feet in the same instant, gun in hand but pointed at the ground while he looked at the other man, gauging just what kind of threat he was.

 

 “Fight at Morton’s!” the man gasped.

 

Lock was on his feet too, the look in his eyes one of intense interest. “You’re Hank Butler, one of Mrs. Morton’s hired hands. You’ve ridden so hard you lost your hat, and you haven’t tied your horse outside as you plan to return immediately. The fight involves other hands on the place, I reckon.”

 

Hank nodded, still breathing hard.

 

“And Mrs. Morton may endanger herself stopping this if we don’t go at once. Doc.”

 

Doc had holstered his Colt; he swept his hat onto his head in the same smooth motion he used in drawing and shooting at opponents, and grinned in the way that scared decent people. “A brawl at Widow Morton’s? Santa Claus knew just what to give me this year, Sheriff.”

 

“I thought St. Nicholas only brought gifts to good people, Doc.” Lock was up, hatted and bundling on his sheepskin coat. “Save the woman’s life first, then beg for a slice of her whiskey cake. Mr. Mayor, if you’ve nothing to keep you in town I’d be obliged if you joined us. We may need an instant arbitration.”

 

I knew exactly what Sheriff Lock meant by that – they’d need a witness to attest as to which shot the other first, if Doc got involved in a gunfight. “I’m coming, Lock.”

 

All three of us headed to the livery stable (I’d walked to the sheriff’s to warm myself in the freezing cold, and both men had their horses stabled today as it wasn’t right having the animals shiver on a hitching post), while Hank mounted up and left; in minutes the three of us were trotting in the direction of Morton’s farm. I was deeply worried, and not just because there was exactly one gun among the three of us.

 

You expect some bad blood among the hired help around here; the work is hard and the life is rough for everyone in good times let alone dry spells, and most farmers and ranchers will hire anyone in trousers regardless of ability, criminal past or temperament. But Constanza Morton was that rarest of birds in Bakerstown, a respectable older woman. She’d kept up the running of her husband’s farm in the ten years since he’d died, and the farm was still a going concern. We hadn’t had a peep of trouble from her or any of her hirelings – until now.

 

Morton’s was on a creek out past Riker’s Butte, about three miles from town. We followed the dry creek-bed past dry brown fields. A pen full of gibbering black turkeys announced us to the household as we rode through the gate.

 

We didn’t need to go looking for anyone, however, because everyone seemed to be in the stretch between the gate and the house. Hank was off his horse, both of them huffing clouds of steam in the cold air, and watching the others. Two other men - the other farmhands no doubt – stood about ten feet apart, clutching knives; they were dirty, disheveled and bleeding, glaring at each other. But they weren’t fighting, because the widow Morton stood between them with a shotgun cocked, glaring at them both. “About damn time you showed, lawdogs,” she hollered at us. “These jackasses are spoiling for a fight, and if I put down this sideiron they’ll jump at each other again.”

 

“Goddamn thief!” one disheveled man spat.

 

“You’re the thief, not me!” the other snarled.

 

All three of us dismounted and approached the makeshift arena – which looked comical with a small brown grey-haired wrinkle-faced woman holding two taller young white men at bay.

 

 “Knives down, gentlemen. Now.” Lock spoke as if he was offering a cup of tea to the combatants, but his tone made them look at his face, and what didn’t scare them there they could see in Doc’s grin and the way he swept the tail of his longcoat aside to display his holstered Colt. They finally tossed their bowie knives to the ground.

 

“Either one of you prodigies bleeding to death?” Doc drawled.

 

One tow-headed man held up his gashed arm. “He cut me, Doc.”

 

“You’ll live, Ryder.” Doc walked back to his horse and pulled off his gator-skin doctor’s bag from behind his saddle. “Good thing – I’d hate to miss a chance to win this month’s wages next time you show at the Red Dog.”

 

“Less I kill ‘em both myself, just to save the aggravation.” Connie Morton lowered the shotgun. “Good day, Lester. Sheriff. Doc.”

 

Lock touched his hat-brim with one finger. With Doc tending one fighter and me keeping an eye on the other fellow, the sheriff turned around to look at the farm, including the gobbling black feather-dusters in the pen and the long barns redolent of manure and full of mooing cattle. “You’ve let the crops die this year so you could concentrate on the stock. The cattle are well-fattened; you brought in the dying wheat as straw and feed. The turkeys are in good form as well.”

 

Widow Morton nodded. She looked tired and angry, the perpetual downturned face of farmers this year. “It’s one or the other, Sheriff. Can’t water ‘em both. Crick’s been bone-dry since April and we’ve been loading barrels at the river. I was just getting this last batch of turkeys ready for town to sell for Christmas when these yahoos started yelling at each other.”

 

“Something else happened to trigger this today.” The sheriff looked at the older woman. “This is more than a rough year and short tempers at play. Something is missing, something valuable.” He looked at her throat.

 

Morton screwed her face into an angrier frown. Her voice was almost a growl. “Goddamn it, Sheriff.”

 

Lock took one sharp look at Doc’s sullen charges and back to me before facing the woman again. “Ma’am, Mayor Strade and I are cold to the bone. I could drink a pot of coffee right about now. Doc’s got everything under control here. Could we go inside, please?”

 

I nodded in agreement, but my opinion of Sheriff Lock improved considerable. See, a lot of folks think of him as this cold-blooded snake who regards everything as a puzzle. But one of the things Sheriff Lock’s pale eyes clearly see is when a tough woman’s about to melt in front of her hired hands. I knew that kind of angry-frown face on a woman from my own Emily – that’s the face of a woman doing her damnedest not to break out in tears.

 

So I accompanied them on the ruse of getting a hot drink (which would be very welcome in that cold weather) and only when we were all indoors did Widow Morton cover her face for a few minutes. She was still a bit wet-eyed when she handed out cups where we sat at the long wooden table in the kitchen, and pouring from the tall coffeepot she started every morning at 4:30 a.m. and kept simmering all day for herself and the men. It was strong black cowhand-coffee by this time of day, with a bigger kick than the saloon piss.

 

Lock took his cup but he kept his eyes on the widow. “That’s what triggered the altercation this morning. Your husband’s ring is missing – the one that you normally wear on a gold chain around your neck, every time I’ve seen you in town.”

 

Widow Morton shook her head, blinking hard. She didn’t sob, even now; the water just ran out of her eyes. “It’s all I’ve got left of George, Sheriff Lock. My own ring’s long gone. We sold just about everything the first three years after he died, to pay for feed and repairs and wages to keep this place going – damn banks won’t lend to a lone woman, ‘specially not a Mexican woman even if she was married to a white man – but I held on to George’s ring. Old woman’s pride.” She glared in the direction that led to the outdoors and the subdued farmhands. “I made the damn-fool mistake of telling the hands it was gone, thinking they could help me look for it – and Jimmy and Jake immediately accused each other of stealing it, chain and all.”

 

Lock nodded, hands pressed together in front of his face like he was praying – his “thinking face,” I call it. “When did you notice it was missing?”

 

Mrs. Morton wiped her cheeks with the flat of her hand. “This morning, early. I’d had it on when I’d gotten up to get the stock fed and watered. Pitch-black and freezing cold out; I stumbled a couple times in the yard, making my way from pen to pen. So cold I didn’t feel much of anything, bundled up as I was, until I got back to the house and found it missing. Could be anywhere.”

 

I thought of the long barns and acre-wide pens full of straw and manure and jostling longhorns and poultry, and the bristly grass around the water barrels. The whole place was an actual haystack to hide such a needle.

 

“Lost, then.” Lock took a bite of the cake-slice on his plate, and his lips turned upward. “Another crackerjack cake. Doc will be pleased.”

 

A twist of her mouth looked like a smile. “Got a piece for that bastard, too, when he comes in. Yes, the ring is lost. If it was just a matter of looking for it I’d take my time and find it eventually. But I wonder about the hired men. If one of them found it first, it could be lost forever. I’d offer a reward to stave off that impulse, but I can’t afford a Christmas present for myself let alone the men.”

 

 “Meaning, any of the hands could be tempted.” Lock tapped one hand’s forefinger against three on the other hand. “Jimmy Ryder, whose wages Doc regularly wins from him at the Red Dog’s poker table, and therefore is regularly bust. Jake Horner was on a chain-gang for theft a year or so before he came out here to start over. Hank Butler seems honest, but he’s poor as any hired hand. Has he or any of them started courting a sweetheart?”

 

“None I can tell. They just come to town and visit the whores.”

 

I nodded, following the sheriff’s line of thought. A courtship could tempt a hireling who’d want money if he was to get married – especially if it was a piece of jewelry presumed lost anyway. And even if none of them had found the ring they’d be accusing each other for precisely those reasons Lock enumerated, everyone’s tempers heightened by the extra work of fetching water and the worry of keeping the place going. We were damned lucky those two had stuck with knives for their fight and that Hank had run for help instead of jumping into the fray with his own knife.

 

“If I can find the ring, we could stop the bad blood right now.” Lock set the cup down on the stand. “My gut tells me none of the three took it. What I’ll have to do is retrace – “

 

A single gunshot rang out. A pistol.

 

The sheriff set his coffee cup down so hard it nearly broke. “Doc!”

 

All three of us ran outside, my heart pounding from more than the coffee.

 

Jimmy and Jake stood where they’d been, Jimmy with his arm newly-bandaged, and they both stared at Doc holstering his smoking Colt. We couldn’t hear a thing from the hysterical noise made by the pen full of gobblers he faced – the ones that had cleared a spot around a pile of exploded black feathers and blood.

 

“Doc!” Lock shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”

 

“Administering justice, Sheriff.” Doc scaled the pen and waded through the screeching birds. He hoisted the bloodied, headless one he’d just shot. “Here’s the thief.” He patted the turkey’s breast.

 

Connie Morton gasped. “The crop!” And only then did I notice the extra bulge just above the breast.

 

Doc walked back with his grisly trophy and climbed over the pen, turkey and all. He laid the bird out on a tree stump. “Les, fetch my bag. I need to perform a little surgery.”

 

I headed to where the two farmhands were still standing and staring at Doc, and took up the gator-skin bag lying on the ground between them. Doc rummaged in the bag and emerged with a scalpel. He slit open the bird’s crop, then set down the scalpel and reached into the wound with his bare fingers. He scooped out a mess of mushy feed and yellow grass… and a tangled glint of gold. Doc pulled, and out came a long gold chain … and out and out, and then out slid a gold ring still on the chain’s end.

 

“That’s it.” The widow coughed and sniffed hard. “Goddamn dust.”

 

Doc handed the chain and ring to Morton, who clutched it heedless of its disgusting state. “After patching up your boys – and getting the story of the missing ring from them – I went over to pick out which turkey I wanted for Christmas dinner, and noticed one of ‘em was walking peculiar. Had all the signs of an impacted crop. Saw it all the time in Ma’s chickens, when they ate grass that was too long. No long grass for the gobblers to eat these days. Had to be something else in one long piece.” He pulled off his kerchief and wiped his hands.

 

“Boys,” Lock said pleasantly to the two sullen combatants who looked everywhere but at each other. “Now that Doc has solved the mystery, I do believe there’s something you need to say to each other, so that you may continue to work here in civility if not friendship.”

 

Jimmy and Jake mumbled a sullen apology and gripped hands.  Only then did the sheriff turn and tip his hat to Mrs. Morton.

 

“You’ve got your payment, lawdogs,” she said, and jerked her chin at the turkey Doc was wrapping in a burlap sack for stuffing into his saddlebag. “Wait just a minute before you leave, Doc.” The square parcel she brought out of the house smelled of whiskey and sugar.

 

Doc took it and grinned at the widow – the grin that didn’t frighten decent people. “Good prices and a drop of rain, Miz Morton.”

 

She grinned back – a smile almost as hard as Doc’s pleasant one. “That’s better than ‘Merry Christmas,’ Doc. Try not to get killed before I see you again.”

 

And that was that. Amusing rather than deadly, which was a relief – I hate hanging a man this close to Christmas.

 

(I was concerned that the incident that had aborted Widow Morton’s market trip that day would be damaging, but I needn’t have worried. She brought the birds into town the day following, and rode home with an empty buckboard and a full pocketbook. “That’s Ryder’s pay in there,” Doc said in satisfaction, watching her leave. “I’ll have it in a week.”)

 

Christmas loomed in my mind again. I tried once more, on the ride back to Bakerstown. “No celebration for the holiday, Sheriff Lock?”

 

“I plan to observe it by the stove, indulging in idleness and gluttony.” As always, Lock rode a horse as if he was a country squire hunting a fox, not a cowtown lawman picking through mesquite and buffalograss. “Town isn’t pious enough for church doings for Christmas, and it’s too goddamn cold for anything outdoors.”

 

On Christmas Eve we got thunder and lightning. We feared for our buildings – we’d been plagued by dry lightning all year – and waited, dreading the roar that meant a fire from a lightning-strike.

 

But toward morning another roar woke us all up – the heavy pelting downpour of rain. Rain filling the gulches and gullies and dry creek-beds – rain enough to water the cattle and the corn, rain to fill the barrels.

 

Men ran outside screeching and whooping for joy, lots of them – and I know because I was one of them, looking the fool in my nightshirt and not caring a damn about it. The cold bite to the air was gone, and only the steady cold of the pouring rain was left, hitting the ground so hard that mud flew in clots high as a horse’s chest.

 

The whores from the Red Circle were outside too, laughing and screaming at the miracle – and laughed even harder when one barfly slipped and skidded along the mud and horse-shit like a toboggan. The mud was everywhere, half liquid in most places, and people were everywhere too, shouting with joy like they were at a revival.

 

I didn’t see who scooped up and threw the first handful of mud at whom – but within a minute it didn’t matter. It was Christmas morning; rain fell on Bakerstown, and the whole of the main street was clogged with ragged drunks and respectable townsmen alike, shouting and laughing and mud-slinging like kids throwing snowballs up north. The mud was cold and sloppy and stank of manure but none of us cared, it was goddamn raining. And it didn’t matter if we got filthy because we had water again for our bathtubs. Every Chinese fellow running a laundry in Bakerstown had to be laughing, too, seeing all those crazy men getting their clothes good and soiled and making lots of business for them.

 

One muddy man lurched over to a mud-plastered whore and yelled something – and Gustav the pimp immediately pushed in up front and demanded $5 each if men wanted to wrestle his girls in the mud. The quickness with which men took him up on the offer made him laugh too, and soon that was quite the lively corner of the street, with the women making some extra money on Christmas day without having to shed their drawers. “I vill bilt box, fill vith mud, have girls wrestle in it at Ret Zircle from now on,” he yelled, and got a round of cheers.

 

I might have stayed longer if I hadn’t been civilized, but Emily’s exasperated shout from the doorway called me back; a married man is not a free man. I spat out a clot of mud and grinned as I let the hammering rain sluice a good deal of the filth off me before going back indoors. I was greeted with a half-hearted scolding and a wholehearted scrubbing as if I was a naughty boy.

 

Only when I was clean and in clean dry clothes was I permitted coffee and breakfast, but I was not in disgrace; Emily had been laughing in the doorway to see the rain too. We could still hear the screeching and whooping outside as the epic mud-battle went on.

 

“We’ll pay a visit on the sheriff and Doc this afternoon, Em,” I said, cutting and eating another wedge of my pancake stack. “Damned if this town hasn’t just invented its own Christmas tradition!”

 

Rather to my disappointment, both Sheriff Lock and Doc had kept well away from that mucky celebration; when Em and I visited that afternoon they were in their usual room in their usual clothes dining on a delicious-smelling roasted turkey and glasses of real whiskey from a Kentucky bottle. But they’d seen everything; the sheriff’s office windows look right onto the main street.

 

“Can’t count on it raining on Christmas Day next year, Mr. Mayor.” Lock poured coffee from the pot on their stove and proffered a bite of Connie Morton’s cake to my wife. “But first rainy day in December would be time to hold it.”

 

“Mud-Day,” Doc added.  “That’s got a nice ring to it.” He grinned. “Almost as good as the one this turkey had.”

 

#

 

And that was the beginning of Bakerstown’s annual Mud-Day celebration. Sheriff Lock was right; that first rainy day doesn’t usually fall right on Christmas day – it’s normally earlier in the month when rain does come, and sometimes we even have to wait till January. But whenever that gulley-soaker shows up, out we run and things get downright festive around here. The joy and happiness we all feel at the return of the badly-needed rain is as great as if we were visited by angels straight from Bethlehem. It ain’t civilized, but it’s what we are. And we’ll keep doing it in Bakerstown till they pave the roads here and make us civilized.

 

Also, the Red Circle’s proprietor made good on his promise. That mud-pit Gustav built, where men can watch wrestling girls or wrestle one themselves, was an eight-day wonder when he put it in, and it’s been a real money-maker for the whorehouse ever since.