(Please enjoy this Tom Fortner Western short story, that I have written as a Christmas ‘Thank You’ to my readers.)
Home for Christmas
A Tale of the Old West
By C.G. Faulkner
Copyright 2017 Falcons’ Rest Farm Publishing
Tom Fortner turned up the collar of his wool-lined overcoat, tightened his scarf, and pulled the brim of his Gray Confederate Cavalry hat down lower over his brow, trying to see through the blizzard that surrounded him.
Gently prodding his horse, Bonnie Blue, on through the snow, he sought refuge from the relentless storm. Behind him, the horse dragged a litter carrying a twelve point, whitetail buck carcass that he had intended to be his family’s Christmas dinner.
If he survived to see his family again…
The day before, December 23rd, 1877; Tom and his wife, Sarah, 7 year old son Jeb, and 5 year old daughter, Ginny, had been smiling, laughing and joshing around as they had trimmed the Christmas tree. They had danced to some lively renditions of Christmas Carols provided by the fiddle of Sarah’s father, David McBride, who was accompanied by howls from the family dog, Hawkeye.
Many expensive presents were wrapped under the tree, this being their first Christmas since Tom had led a very profitable cattle drive earlier that year that had resulted in Tom and his partners financial security, if not wealth. Many hardships had been endured, and several good men lost, but Tom and his partners had been undaunted in their efforts to bring the herd to the Army in Montana.
Now, comfortable in their cozy cabin in southeastern Colorado, on the North Fork of the Cimarron River, all of that seemed long ago and far away.
Tom’s best friend and cattle drive partner, Erwin Schotz and his family, had come to call, and even his more recently made friend, Adam Jakes, with whom past disagreements (and different sides in the late war) had long since been set aside.
“Well, I’d best be heading out,” Tom announced late that morning. “If I’m going to find that ol’ buck I’ve been watching, and saving, for Christmas dinner.”
“Daddy, do you have to kill him?” Ginny asked.
“Yes, little Rabbit’s Foot, if we’re going to eat roast venison for Christmas dinner, I do,” Tom replied as he hugged his daughter. Tom was a crack shot, and a responsible hunter, and treated his kills as many Indians did. Nothing was wasted, and the animal’s sacrifice for them was respected. The way that some in the West hunted, especially the mass killings of the Buffalo, sickened Tom when he had encountered it over the years there.
“Can’t I go with you, Daddy? I was fine on the cattle drive…” Jeb caught himself, remembering that he had stowed away on that drive, and come into grave danger a few times as a result.
“Not this time, son, Maybe next year. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten that tomorrow is not only Christmas Eve, but your eighth birthday, as well, and I wouldn’t miss that.” Tom smiled.
“Wish I could join you, son, but with this ol’ ticker, and game leg of mine…” McBride, the old Irishman, said.
“I’ll try to bring a quail or two back for you,” Tom replied, patting the shoulder of the old man, who had become like a father to him.
“Here’s your corn dodgers and bacon,” Sarah said, handing Tom the bag. “With your ‘medicinal’ flask of Tennessee Whiskey, as well,” she smiled. Tom was only an occasional drinker, but did like to have a nip in the evening at the campfire along with his pipe, especially on a cold night.
“Thank you, my darlin’.” He kissed her forehead. After more hugs from the kids and barks from the dog, Sarah walked him out, and another, more private kiss followed.
“I’ll be back by midday tomorrow with that deer to prepare for roasting,” Tom assured her.
“Be careful,” she commanded as he mounted his horse.
“Always, my love,” and with a wave, he galloped off to the high country, where ‘Ol’ Buck’ roamed.
The skies were clear, the wind light, and though chilly, not as cold as one might expect for a Colorado December.
By late afternoon, he’d set up camp, tied off his horse, and with his Winchester, walked higher up into the hills where he’d last seen the buck. Sarah had asked him, ‘Why, when we have all this beef on the hoof out there on our ranch, do you want to go to all the trouble of hunting?’ He had jokingly replied, ‘We just need a little variety on the menu.’
As much as he loved the time spent with his family, he did enjoy the occasional peaceful solitude of being alone in the wild country, with just his own thoughts to contemplate.
And now, as twilight fell, and he raised the rifle, the deer in his sights to contemplate.
Ol’ Buck raised his massive rack, and sniffed the air. Tom hoped that since he was downwind of his prey, he wouldn’t be sensed.
The wily buck, however, was still aware of his presence. Just as the majestic animal turned to bolt, Tom made the shot, catching the buck in the back of the head, and it toppled over, dead before it hit the ground.
He walked over, and reverently looked over his kill. “Thank you, great one, and may you roam the fields of the hereafter in peace.”
He built a litter of branches and twine, and dragged the buck back, reaching camp by dark.
Once settled in, he built a small fire in a circle of rocks just outside his tent door, and pulled a bearskin pelt around him for warmth. As his bacon fried, he sipped from his flask, and munched on a couple of corn dodgers, looking to the sky.
He spotted it, the brightest star in the sky. Though he knew that there had been only one Star of Bethlehem, he liked to think of it as a Christmas Star; the star that had led the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus. He thought it was a good sign that he could see it that night.
Next morning, just before sunrise, he awoke with a start, shivering. Though it had been right at freezing when he went to sleep, it now seemed far below it. A wind howled outside the tent, and as he opened the flaps, he saw that a heavy snow had begun to fall. Weather was an unpredictable thing, his father had always said…
He threw aside the bear pelt and pulled on his boots. “No time for breakfast, I’ve got to git.” Bonnie Blue, tethered a few feet away, stomped her hooves in agreement.
Within minutes, his camp was packed up and he was on his way. For a while, he rode, Bonnie Blue trudging through the mounting snow. After a bit of that, though, he was forced to dismount, and lead his horse, pulling the deer litter behind through the blizzard.
Tom’s blonde beard, specked with gray, was becoming caked with snow, his cheeks a bright red. If I walked in now, the children might think I was Saint Nick, he thought with a grim smile. Then he shivered. Despite his layers of warm clothing and heavy coat, the cold bit through.
“Hope Ol’ Buck can thaw enough to dress and roast tonight…” he murmured. “ I hope I can…”
His sentence unfinished, he realized that his troubles had just begun. From the aspen trees around him came five hungry-looking wolves; that wouldn’t care if Ol’ Buck, Bonnie Blue or Tom himself were frozen, or not.
His Smith and Wesson revolver too difficult to reach in time under his long, heavy coat, he slowly drew back the snow covered saddle blanket to withdraw the Winchester from its scabbard, working the lever action slowly as he assessed the situation.
The poor wolves were scrawny, and must’ve had a few bad weeks of hunting, and they wanted the deer. Tom briefly considered giving it to them, though he’d hate to do so after all this.
The choice was taken from him as the leader made his move, growling fiercely and running at Tom. He fired, and it flew to the side with a yelp. He turned to his right as one was threatening his horse, snapping at her forelegs. She reared, and Tom shot that wolf, as well.
While he was turned, however, the other three had flanked him on his left, and the new Alpha Wolf leapt, biting down hard on his left arm, causing him to drop the rifle. Even though the coat, heavy wool shirt and long johns, he could feel the immense pressure of the bite. He tried shaking it off, but then the other two pounced, their onslaught relentless, and the power and weight of the three predators was too much. Tom began to topple backwards, and once on the ground, he knew he’d be done for.
He fell back, his head striking an ice covered rock. He felt the warmth of his own blood on the back of his head as consciousness slipped away.
He never thought that it would end for him like this. It crossed his mind how glad he was that he hadn’t brought Jeb along this year.
The last thing he heard before the silence of nothingness was the growling, the barking, the tearing and shredding of his coat and scarf…
…and then, the sound of gunfire.
Then, oblivion took him completely.
At first he just heard sounds. A popping and hissing, as if wet firewood were being burned, then a dripping, like a leaky roof. I fixed that leak last spring before…
His eyes opened, and, looming over him was the blurry image of a snarling, tooth-filled grimace, coming closer.
Tom scrambled backward, reaching for his sidearm, then realized his gunbelt was gone. Then he grabbed for a rock.
The man held up his hands in a non-threatening manner. “Be calm, sir. I was only about to apply a poultice to that arm of yours…” the face said. Then it came into focus. He was an Indian, no, a half-breed, older than Tom. He was wearing a coonskin hat and a bearhide coat. The grimace which, in his delirium Tom had mistaken for the rictus of death, was actually a friendly smile. The best smile the man could make with his curled back harelip. “My name is Rab, and you are safe here. I mean you no harm.”
Tom’s head cleared some, and he reached back, feeling the goose-egg on the back of his skull. It felt wet, but not with blood. His wound had been cleaned, and this Good Samaritan was trying to do the same for the wolf bite on his arm. “Thanks,” he replied. “Name’s Fortner. Tom Fortner.”
“I happened by just in time, it seems,” Rab said. “Those wolves were preparing to make supper of you.”
“The hunter becomes the hunted,” Tom managed to chuckle. “Though I was hunting deer.”
“A good kill. It is at the cave entrance, staying cold,” he gestured to the bit of light filtering through the snowfall outside. Tom could see that his horse, and Rab’s, were tied off out there, as well. It was a small cave, but dry; and the campfire warmed the place well.
“How long was I out? Is it still Christmas Eve?” Tom asked, hoping his family wasn’t out in this weather looking for him.
“Christmas Eve? I suppose so. I haven’t seen a calendar in a while, but it’s only been a couple hours since I found you.”
“Good, I’ve got to get home…” Tom started to get up, bumping his head on the cave ceiling.
“Patience, Mr. Fortner. Rest a bit. This storm will pass soon…” he leaned toward the kettle over the fire. “Here, have some of my coffee. The trail hands on many a drive didn’t seem to mind it.”
Tom nodded, and accepted the offered mug.
“You wonder what I’m doing out here…how I found you?” Rab asked. “And about this mug of mine?” he pointed to his own face, the friendly smile returning.
Tom did wonder why the man was out in the wilderness alone, unless he was also hunting. As for the harelip, or cleft palate, Tom certainly didn’t believe in the silly superstitions and nonsense about witchcraft associated with it. Nor did he pay much mind to the unfortunate accidents of birth that some had to bear. He tried to judge a man based solely on his actions. And so far, this man’s actions were good; and had saved his life, in fact.
“Tell me, Rab,” he looked again to the heavy snowfall outside. “We seem to have some time to occupy.”
“Well, Rab is short for ‘Runs With Rabbits’,” Rab chuckled. “That’s the ‘Indian name’ I was given at the foundling home back in Nebraska. Don’t know if my mother gave me any other name before leaving me there, I don’t remember her at all…”
Rab went on to tell the tale of his parentage, or what he could piece together of it. His father was a Lakota Sioux brave, his mother, a daughter of German settlers that ran away to see what ‘life with the Indians’ was like. Rab figured that he had been rejected as a baby by both her people and his father’s. He didn’t know if they still lived, or when they had died; just that he had been abandoned by her at the home, and that her last name was Miller. So Rab Miller he was.
The Quakers that had run the orphanage were kind enough; though many of the other children were not. They had often made sport of his deformity, and the fact that he was half Sioux. He had accepted the fact back then that he’d always be an outcast in some ways. And, with a few exceptions, that’s how it had been.
He left there at fourteen and hired on as a millworker, then later, various jobs, including as a cook and cattle hand on some drives, from Texas to Kansas. He had most recently been a trapper, trading with pelts on the frontier.
“…and those wolves today, they will bring a good price. I took the liberty…?”
Tom nodded affirmatively, certainly not minding if Rab took the ones he had shot, too. No sense in them going to waste.
Having concluded his story, Rab withdrew a skewer from the fire. “And wolf doesn’t taste too bad, neither. You want some?”
“Thanks…but no,” Tom replied. “I’ll save my appetite for venison at home. Say, Rab, do you have any plans for Christmas?”
The snowfall ceased within a few more hours; and, by twilight, the sky was clear and full of stars and a bright half-moon.
Tom and Rab set out for the Fortner Ranch along the North Fork of the Cimarron. Tom just hoped they’d be there in time for Christmas.
Mr. McBride was trying to reassure his daughter of her husband’s safety. It was after eleven at night, on Christmas Eve, and he had been expected back at midday. She had just sent the children to bed, promising them that their father would be home when they awoke Christmas morning.
“Our Tom has survived many things, my dear, and he can certainly get shelter from some snow, and find his way home…” McBride said. Somewhat worried despite his words, he sat fidgeting with his pipe and pouch of tobacco.
“I pray you are right, Father, if…”
They heard the snort of a horse, and bells outside. The dog barked.
“We heard bells!” Jeb said as the children rushed in from their rooms.
“Are Daddy and Santa here?” Ginny asked, rubbing her eyes.
McBride peeked through the frost covered window by the door, and turned to the family. “He’s back!”
The door opened, and some snow piled outside blew in; but all Sarah Fortner saw was her husband. She ran to him, and they embraced. “Thomas Jefferson Fortner! If you ever put a scare like that in me again I’ll…”
Tom interrupted her with a kiss. Then said, “I’m sorry to be late, dear…but I did bring some company. Come on in, Rab!”
Shyly, he followed Tom in, hat in hand.
“Family, this is Rab Miller. He saved my life…and when Ol’ Buck thaws and cooks, he’ll have Christmas dinner with us.” He looked at the clock. “Which I suppose will have to be tomorrow, on the day itself!”
Taken aback only momentarily by Rab’s appearance, Sarah spoke up first. “Thank you, Mr. Miller, thank you for getting my husband home safe.”
As Sarah was speaking, and McBride was shaking Rab’s hand, the children, startled at first, remembered what they’d been taught by their parents: That there were all kinds of folks in the world, and that as long as they were kind to you, that you be kind to them , also. Jeb and Ginny smiled at Miller, and he smiled back.
Ginny noticed the knapsack slung over Rab’s shoulder, and that there were a few decorative bells attached. “Are you Santa Claus?” She asked. Everyone laughed.
He kneeled down. “No, ma’am. These bells are the way I call my horse to me sometimes. But I did see Santa up in the hills a while back, and he said that you were both pretty good kids this year…”
The children beamed with delight.
“Pretty good kids that need to get back to bed, so that Santa may visit later,” Sarah added. “Now, Husband, Mr. Miller, you’ll both need something hot to eat long before that deer cooks in the morning. I happen to still have some beef stew in the pot. You two go sit by the fire and warm up!”
“We’d best listen to her, Rab,” Tom laughed.
“Stew sounds good, Mrs. Fortner, thank you.”
Through the frosted window panes a star shone brightly.
Christmas Day at noon, they all sat around the supper table, about to enjoy a vast meal of venison, roasted potatoes, dressing, cornbread, ears of corn, beans and an apple streusel for dessert.
Jeb had been sung happy birthday before his second bedtime, and been given a present, another book for his growing collection: ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. He looked forward to reading it.
Although Tom hadn’t been able to get those quail for his father-in-law, the old Irishman had said he’d be very content with the venison, and the bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey Tom had bought the last time he was in Dodge City.
Ginny played with her new doll, a beautiful porcelain China Doll.
Sarah loved the new Sunday dress Tom had gotten her, but the vast majority of her thankfulness was for the fact that that Tom had made it home safely.
Tom was thankful that he was alive, as he hadn’t really thought about how close he had come to not being that way, until he was recounting the story to the family over the Christmas Eve stew.
Rab Miller, who had accepted Tom’s offer to work as a ranch hand there as long as he wanted, was thankful for his new friends that had accepted him as he was. For the first time in a long while, he had been treated with dignity and kindness.
McBride cleared his throat and spoke up. “Shall we give thanks? I’m hungry.” And he proceeded with the blessing.
Afterward, Tom read to them from the old family Bible, Book of Luke. “For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, good will toward men.’ ”
Merry Christmas to all.
To read more of the Western Adventures of Tom Fortner, please visit amazon.com/author/cgfaulkner