I write short stories
In fact, I broke in as a short story writer, getting picked up by several anthologies in the Mid-South a quarter-century ago.
Somewhere along the line I started writing Christmas short stories, one each year to share with friends.
When I had a dozen of them in the file, my wife Marge, who likes the stories, said you really ought to publish them.
I put her off several years, saying short story anthologies don't sell. And most don't. But then a fellow mystery writer brought out a Christmas novella. I asked why, and he said, so I have something I can sell my fans in November and December.
That did it for me. So the next year I brought out my first collection of Christmas short stories . . . this collection. I had set them in Kansas, home country for my Kansas sheriff, James Early. My intent was and is to bring out a new collection each year until, well, I guess until I run out of stories.
So here's the opening of Early's Christmas:
James Early hunched his shoulders, forcing his mackinaw up over his chin and around his ears. But it wasn’t enough protection, so he yanked his battered cattleman’s hat down his forehead until the brim sheltered his nose from the spits the Wester drove at him and his horse, the roan’s face and brisket crusted white.
The day before Christmas and no sun, just marbly gray clouds from which the god of winter flushed snow.
Early longed to glance back, to see whether his prize was still behind him, but to twist around in the saddle would be to invite the snow to whistle down his collar. Besides, the prize had to be there. He could feel the strain on the rope that ran from his saddle horn, across the heavy muscle of his upper leg, and back along his horse’s flank.
Early’s horse moved with the stiffness of an unoiled machine, yet steadily for she knew, as did Early, that ahead somewhere was the barn. She ratchetted her head from side to side, snorting, blasting from her nostrils the snow crystals drawn in by each breath.
Early could have done this yesterday, should have done this yesterday when the sun shone cold, but work at the courthouse intervened. It kept him away until almost dark, too late to ride to the back quarter of his ranch where patches of cedar trees grew, weeds in a neglected garden.
He’d spotted one in the fall, squatty but tall enough, when he and a neighbor chased his momma cows and their calves out of the ravines and drove them to the corral for branding, where the truly hard work of fall commenced. The roundup, the cowboying, that for Early was pure fun and beat sheriffing any day of the week. Yet he held down the job of chief lawman for Riley County to pay the mortgage. He’d lost one place because he hadn’t had a steady income and had vowed never to lose another.
The wind, long and constant, went to shifting and gusting. Early raised his head enough to peer from beneath his hat and he caught a light. Home, the ranch house.
Molly sensed it, not the ranch house so much as the barn, as she plodded, the warm, protective barn with its stock of oats and prairie hay, and buckets of water her rider toted from the well. She veered away from the house only to have Early pull a rein against her neck, turning her in the opposite direction.
“Bridge!” he bellowed as Molly plodded on.
A door opened and out onto the porch stepped a red-haired woman drawing a shawl around her shoulders. “Jimmy?”
“Got it for ya,” he said as Molly pulled abeam of the porch. He reined her to a stop, and she blew billows of well-steamed breath from her nostrils.
Bridgette O’Donohue Early hustled down into the yard, to the rider, his horse, and the prize. “’Tiz a beauty,” she said, “every bit as good as you promised.”
Her nimble fingers, warm from working in the kitchen, loosed the knot at the end of the rope while Early stepped down from his mount, stiff, half-frozen, appearing as a ghost to anyone who might meet him head-on. He slapped the snow from his mackinaw, then took hold of the cedar tree Molly had dragged for more than three miles. He banged the tree’s stump on the porch floor, dislodging a rain of snow and a bird’s nest from the cedar’s branches. Bridgette swept the nest up.
Early rammed his way through the open door with his Christmas prize, into the warmth that smelled of fresh-baked bread, the widest branches of the tree raking back to spring forward when they cleared the jamb. He moved across the room to a corner where a bucket of wet sand waited. There Early raised the tree to vertical and jammed the butt end into the sand.
He stepped back. “Damn thing’s a weed. Cows won’t eat it, so I’m glad to be shed of it.”
“You say that like a humbug, Jimmy. It’s a beautiful tree. Only in America. Back home we couldn’t spare a tree for Christmas.”
“I guess the world is different wherever you are. I got to get Mol in the barn. She’s cold.”
“Supper be ready when you get back.”
Thawed some, Early pushed out into the weather. He gathered up his horse’s reins and set off at a trot for the barn. Molly needed no encouragement. She kicked up the pace to move abreast of Early, the mass of her body screening him from the wind.
He flicked the reins over her saddle, then slowed enough to roll open the door at the end of the barn. Animal heat, rich with the smell of horses and hay, rushed out. Early slapped Molly’s rump as she flashed by, inside to her stall, second on the right, its door gapped open, inviting.
Early rolled the barn’s great door shut. Then he stripped off his gloves and lit the lantern that hung from its peg. The lamp smoked some as he carried it to the center of the barn. There he hung the lantern on a hook he had nailed to a ceiling beam. Early turned the wick up and the flame brightened. Its light pushed back the gloom of the late afternoon.
He made quick work of unsaddling Molly, rubbing her down with feed bags until the horse’s hair, dry at last, shone its rich roan color. She turned her broad face to Early and rubbed it hard against his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said, “you take care of me and I take care of you.”
The horses in the large stall to the side of Molly leaned their heads over the wall. They snorted and stamped for attention. Early went to each in turn. He patted their muzzles before he hurried away to the feed room. Early liked the dusty smell of dry grain as much as he did prairie hay cut just at the bloom stage. He returned carrying a bucket of oats. Early dumped a third in the bunk in front of Molly and the rest in the adjoining bunk for the other horses. He hustled away again, to trek back with forkfuls of bluestem hay.
That done, Early collected the water buckets from the corners of the stalls. The rancher who had built the barn had done one thing Early had long admired. He had dug two wells, one near the house and the second inside the barn so he would never have to carry water through the weather for his livestock. Early pumped away, lifting the clearest, sweetest water up from the depths of the stone-lined well, to slosh into first one bucket, then the second and the third.
He also filled a jar to half. He took that into the feed room where he kept a bag of milk replacer. Early scooped up a handful of the powder. He dropped it in the jar and shook it like a bartender making an expensive drink in a Kansas City gin mill. Early brought this instant milk out into the alley. He poured it into a wide, flat pan he kept by the pump.
“Hey, cats!” he bawled, and a half-dozen felines of a variety of sizes and a rainbow of colors came boiling out of their nests in the hay pile. They yeowled and rubbed against Early’s boot tops as they waited for him to set the pan down.
He did and they crowded in, six cats shoulder to shoulder around the circumference of the pan, heads down, lapping at a furious rate.
Early shook his head as he watched his company of rodent killers. Cats didn’t make any money for him or any rancher. They saved money, eating the vermin that would eat Early’s harvest. But his horses waited on him, a day’s thirst that had to be slaked, so Early carried his buckets to the stalls and set them in the corners.
Chores done, he turned out the lantern and hurried back toward the house, the Wester blowing steady again, but the snow lighter and the flakes smaller than earlier in the day. Could be about the end of it, Early thought as he stomped on the porch floor, kicking loose the snow that covered his boots.
The door opened before he got hold of the handle. There stood Early’s wife of less than a year, a slice of candied carrot in her fingers.
Early opened his mouth to ask how she knew he was there, and she stuffed the sample of supper in. “Good,” he mumbled after he worked the surprise around his molars and swallowed it.
“I’ve got more. Come on in, cowboy.”
Early shucked himself out of his mackinaw. Bridgette took it and his hat to hang in the kitchen while he pulled his Kansas State sweatshirt up and over his head, raking the icicles out of his mustache in the process. Early strolled over to the fireplace. He gave himself a scalp massage before the flames consuming the chunks of oak he had split back in the fall.
“Smell the cedar?” Bridgette asked from the kitchen.
Early inhaled as he turned his rump to the fire. He rubbed the heat into his backside. “That’s the one thing you can say for that ranch weed. If the coyotes haven’t peed on it, it does smell good in the house.”
“Well, come on. It’s ready.”
Early combed his hair with his fingers as he shambled to the kitchen, a low lean-to built on the back of the house and closed in by the previous owner. There on the plank table lay the makings of a feast, a beef roast with Irish and sweet potatoes, corn from the garden canned back in the summer, candied beets as well as the candied carrots, and bread-and-butter pickles.
“Awful lot for two people. You expecting company?”
Bridgette grinned as she came away from the oven with a loaf of bread, still hot in the pan. “I’ve got to keep you happy so you keep coming home,” she said as she slathered butter over the top crust. Bridgette turned the loaf out onto a platter, heat shimmering the near air. “Christmas bread, a Martha Gooch recipe. I heard it on the radio last week. Come, sit down.”
Early slid onto a bench at one side of the table, and Bridgette onto the bench across from him. She reached for his hand, shivering at the touch. “Have you been carryin’ blocks of ice?”
“Riding into the wind. Bridge, it’s colder than a witch’s elbow out there.”
“You’ll warm up when we get you filled up. Are you going to pray?”
Early bowed his head. “Dear Lord, hard to believe it’s Your son’s birthday again. We praise You. You’ve been so good to us, providing us with shelter, a wealth of food, ways to make a living and a home together. It’s been mighty nice, and we ask You to make it possible again through the coming year. We ask one more thing, Lord, that You look after Bridge’s family in faraway Loch Glenn. . . . Amen.”
He felt the squeeze of his wife’s hand on his. Early had missed that, having been a widower for more than a year. I’m like my dad, he mused, the marrying kind, not meant to live alone. Some ranchers did and Early wondered about that when he’d drive by or stop in on them. They seemed happy enough, but when Early would reach for his hat to leave, he could see a tad of sadness in their eyes.
“What’re you thinking about, Jimmy?”
He glanced up. “How nice it is we both have our knees under the same table.”
“Do you miss Thelma?”
Early slid his spoon to the left of his knife, then the knife to the left of the spoon.
“Jimmy, do you?”
“You want a lie?” he asked, shuffling the spoon and knife again.
“There are times, yes, when I’m by myself.”
“I wish I’d known her.”
“You would have liked her. Everybody did.”
Bridgette sliced the beef. She made a business of laying a slab on Early’s plate. “Am I in second place?”
“Not hardly. My mother made me promise to marry a first-place woman. ‘Go for the best,’ she said, ‘like your daddy did.’ ” He helped himself to the potatoes.
“You’re a sweet man, James Early. Now did you get me my cow for Christmas?”
He set the bowl down so hard a potato bounced out and onto the floor. “Good God, no. A milk cow is a shame to a rancher. Dirt farmers have milk cows.”
“James Early, we have a saying where I come from, ‘If you have a cow, hunger will never stare through your door.’ ” The green of Bridgette’s eyes flashed in the light of the lanterns that illuminated the kitchen. “I want my dairy cow.”
“When the devil comes up through the frozen earth,” Early said.
She waved a fork in his face. “That could be tonight, husband.”
He opened his mouth, but a pounding on the door interrupted. Early rose and went out through the front room.
“That could be Old Scratch come for you,” Bridgette called after him.
Early wrenched the door open to stare into the face of a man in an overcoat and plaid cap with the earlappers pulled down.
Early hauled the man inside, Mose Dickerson, the constable from Riley. “About time you got here, Mose. Bridge is about to skin me over this cow business.”
“It isn’t that. Old Ed Watson and Marvelle are goin’ at it with hatchets and pitchforks. Their girl called me, but I’m not gonna get between them two by myself.”
Early cackled. “That’s a good one. That’s a really good story. Let me get my coat and we’ll get going.”
“This ain’t no story, Jimmy. This is for true.”
“Oh, sure,” Early said as he trotted to the kitchen. He took down his mackinaw and pulled it on. “Sorry, Bridge. Looks like the Watsons are at it, and Mose and I gotta go break it up before one of them kills the other.”
“Better bring your axe handle, Jimmy,” Dickerson called out.
The anger in Bridgette’s eyes fled, replaced by worry. “You want me to come?”
“No, Mose and I can handle it.” Early slapped his cattleman’s hat on his head and took an axe handle from the broom closet where he kept the other tools of his law trade–a twelve-gauge pump shotgun, his Winchester Thirty-Ought-Six, and his Army Forty-Five.
“Riot control,” he said as he hefted the handle. “Be back in half an hour, hour at the most.”