Before They Were Seven

Christmas Past

by Sevenstars

Olabelle, Kansas
Not Far From Wichita

Nathan Jackson leaned against a peeled porch-post and watched the children setting off firecrackers, recreating the custom of their Southern roots. Simon Smallwood, whose family had taken him in as a guest when he first drifted into Olabelle a month ago, had told him that the community always ordered a double amount of crackers in June and held out half of them for Christmas, since they were impossible to get at any other time. Tomorrow morning, before breakfast, all the children would go racing from one house-door to another, as once they had raced from door to door in the Big House, to wake their neighbors with cries of "Christmas gif’!" and claim their rewards, usually candies. There would be nuts, raisins, apples, oranges, and ginger cakes for every child, toys and gifts between kin and friends, and several days of feasting, singing, dancing, and banjo parties.

Olabelle had been founded by a small company of former slaves heading West after the Emancipation--what some folks were beginning to call "Exodusters"; most of the original settlers had known one another on the "old plantation" in Tennessee, and to Nathan’s astonishment seemed to have almost pleasureable memories of their experience there. The population now numbered 231, most of them engaged in farming but living close together within town limits rather than on separate parcels. They had taken up their land under the Homestead Act, 160 acres each family, but they were a gregarious folk and little inclined to moulder away on isolated steadings, and preferred to follow what Nathan knew was a custom dating back to the Middle Ages, of village dwelling and almost communal work. There was one store, a blacksmithy, an elementary saloon, and a little church. Most of the houses, including the Smallwoods’, were sod, but well-built and considerably cozier and more comfortable than the slave cabin in which Nathan had spent his childhood and youth until, a little more than ten years ago, he had finally stolen himself away to freedom.

He sighed softly. That was the last time he had seen his father or any of his brothers and sisters. He supposed he could have gone back to Georgia and tried to find them after the War, and maybe it had been cowardly of him not to, but the notion of seeing the master again, even if he was free by both his own effort and act of Congress, had given him a sick feeling that hadn’t left him until he had resolved not to make the attempt. In any case, there wasn’t really much he had in common with them any more. He had had what it took to run, and they hadn’t.

Still, he missed them and thought about them often, and about his mother whom he hadn’t seen in even longer, since she’d been sold away when he was seven. It would be nice to have a family again some day, after he’d established himself somewhere. He wasn’t the only one who thought so, either. Simon’s seventeen-year-old daughter Lula wasn’t fooling anyone with her coquettishness, least of all her daddy or Nathan. And Nathan, though he wasn’t vain, knew himself to be, at twenty-five, a fine figure of a man--six feet three, broad-shouldered, glossy-skinned with good health, solid and powerful after a decade of proper feeding. But what made him feel best about himself was that he could read and write and knew he’d found his gift. It was strange to think how, in the midst of the terror and slaughter of war, he had discovered a depth of compassion he had never guessed might exist in him, and a true healer’s touch, an ability to soothe the hurting and fevered, a deftness of hand and a quickness of mind that Dr. Seaman, the Medical Corps officer under whom he had served as a stretcher-bearer and hospital orderly, had told him was rare even in white folks.

Even then, Nathan had hardly dared hope he could make anything of it. He knew there were colleges like Oberlin that welcomed blacks, but they cost money he didn’t have and lacked any prospect of getting. Not till he ventured west of Big Muddy had he realized that there were other routes to the healing profession; in the West, self-taught "irregular" doctors were common, often Indian-raised and inclined to Indian medicines, most of them having become healers through happenstance, because they had successfully suggested treatment for someone and thus gained a reputation. Some were quacks, drunks, or both, but many, Nathan had learned, were men (and even women) with whom regular doctors would be proud to share a town’s practise. In many places--Kansas included--there was no state examination, no medical association, and no inquiries into a high rate of failure; even the educated doctors simply did their best and literally buried their mistakes, hoping to learn something from each. And once a doctor, irregular or otherwise, became known for curing the sick and succoring the injured, he could ride the trails confident that even badmen would let him pass unmolested, since they never knew when they might desperately need his services themselves.

And thus Nathan had made up his mind that the West was the place for him. He hadn’t settled yet on where he would light; he was still young and wanting to learn, and that meant he needed to get more years and travel under his belt. He had a good horse to carry him, a set of medical instruments that had belonged to Dr. Seaman’s son until the younger man died of influenza over the winter of ’64-5 and had been given to him by the father, and a half-dozen precious books. Fortunes had been made with less, and Nathan wasn’t looking for a fortune; just a home, acceptance, maybe someday a wife and kids.

Olabelle was, he had decided, as good a place as any to winter; travel on the Plains in this season could be easy or deathly perilous, and Nathan was of no mind to risk the latter. There was a granny who did the midwiving and, after a bit of uncertainty, had consented to teach him a little of her art; there were several women, including Simon’s daughter-in-law Louvinia, who knew something of herbs and other natural medicines. Nathan had long since decided that every day he was living, he would be learning. This was a good place to do that, surrounded by his own kind, safe and accepted.

"Merry Christmas, Nathan," said Simon’s deep voice behind him as the older man stepped out onto the porch, releasing a delicious aroma of Brunswick stew full of hogmeat, beans, tomatoes, hot peppers, and corn. Lord, Simon’s wife Carrie had to be the best cook it had ever been Nathan’s pleasure to meet, and Lula was learning her mother’s lessons well. Olabelle--the community had been named for Simon’s mother-in-law, who had been the first to be buried in its little cemetery--was for the most part a town of subsistence farmers, since the railroad was too far away to haul surplus to and freight rates too costly for smallholders to pay, but apart from the feed and livestock it grew, every family kept poultry and hogs and a half-acre of garden, young apple and peach trees were beginning to bear, every house-plot was bounded by berry bushes and every porch draped with grapevines, and fish and game were plenty and free for the taking. Like all Southern black people, the citizens knew and loved good food, and many of the women had been trained in plantation kitchens. Nathan knew already what he could expect to see on the table tomorrow: ham, baked spareribs, cornbread-stuffed turkey with giblet gravy, fried chicken, sliced sweet potatoes giving off a great aroma of nutmeg, collard greens, sweet peas, potato salad, lettuce and tomatoes, corn pudding, biscuits, yeast rolls, cornbread, cranberry sauce, pickles and relishes, apple, pumpkin, and sweet-potato pie, poundcake, fruitcake, and four layer cakes, caramel, chocolate, "plain," and coconut, to say nothing of cookies, eggnog, and coffee. The family had scarcely been allowed to live in the house the last couple of days, what with Carrie and Lula cooking up a storm.

"Merry Christmas, Simon," he responded. "Stew for supper? Seems kind of ordinary for Christmas Eve."

Simon chuckled. "Maybe if we’d been workin’ as hard as dem women’s been, we’d be glad ob de rest."

"Maybe," Nathan allowed. He shifted, turning to face the older man. "You all makin’ a good life here, Simon? For true?"

"Well, it ain’t always easy," Simon admitted thoughtfully, "but easy ain’t a thing black folks ’spects out ob life, is it? Still, de land’s free, it don’t need no clearin’, and we don’t need to burn no logs or slashin’s or grub up sprouts ev’ry spring. Once our fields is plowed, long hours of labor ain’t needed nor profitable, and we got a lot more leisure, ’ceptin’ chores, dan we done back Eas’. We got time to fish and hunt and hab good times togeder. Our chilluns is growin’ up strong and healthy, we don’t see chills nor fever, and dey mostly looks after demselves. What’s best, we might not make a lot of money, but what we hab is our own."

"That’s about how I see what I hope to do," Nathan agreed. "I know doctors out here, even if they’re white and been to college, got to accept a lot of barter and carry accounts like storekeepers. I can deal with that, since I know it’s no different for them than for me. And I know I won’t have the old wounds of the war to deal with. This is a new land where a man can start fresh. I like that."

"You reckon white folks gon’ ’cept you as a healer?" Simon inquired.

"I reckon in a country where folks got to build up everything from scratch, there’s got to be some place where a black man will be welcomed for his skills because he’s all there’ll be," said Nathan.

"Could stay wid us," Simon suggested mildly. "We’s your own kind."

It was the first time he'd come out and said it. "You figurin’ to match me up with Lula, Simon?"

The older man’s soft eyes met his steadily. "She’s a good gal, Nathan, and she likes you. Her mamma’s taught her right well; she’d make you a good wife. And here you’d know you was welcome. It ain’t about de color you is, Nathan, not entire, anyhow. It’s about what’s in dere," and he reached out a long forefinger and tapped Nathan on the chest. "You got a bitter angry fire a-burnin’ in dere dat freedom ain’t put out. Even if you don’t put it in words, dey’s always gon’ be white folks dat’s clever enough to sense dat in you. You got to put de past behind you and quench dat fire or you’ll be no use to anybody, not even your ownself."

Nathan took a deep breath and counted silently to ten. "You don’t know what it was like for me, Simon. You didn’t live my life or see what I saw. I know from what you all have said that your masters treated you a lot better than mine did me and my family. I couldn’t quite believe it at first, but I reckon now I accept you couldn’t all be lookin’ back through rose-colored glasses. And that’s fine. You can afford not to be angry or bitter. I can’t."

"Yes, you can," Simon insisted. "What you reckon dis day is all about after all, son? About a man who come to earth to forgive sin. Seem to me like de worstest sins is about causin’ hurt where it ain’t needed. So you was sinned against, and you got to forgive. Lord Jesus could do it, why not you?"

"’Cause I ain’t Jesus," Nathan replied simply.

"You reckon you suffered worse dan He done?"

Nathan hesitated. "I don’t want to sound disrespectful, Simon, but yes, I reckon so. Jesus didn’t wake up one mornin’ to find himself sold away from his mamma. He didn’t grow up knowin’ he was property, as much to be used and disposed of as a cow or a hog. He didn’t get flogged but the one time. He didn’t have to run away from his home and family just so’s he could learn to read and write and have a chance to make a decent life for himself. I know all that might sound shockin’ to you, Simon, but it’s true, you gotta admit it’s true. And it’s what made me the man I am, and I won’t forget any of it if I live to be a thousand."

"Well," said Simon after a moment, "I ain’t got to de age I am widout learnin’ when to quit beatin’ on a dead horse. I’m sorry you feels like you does, but I know if your heart’s ever to change, de wish has to come from inside you." He slung his arm around the younger man’s shoulder. "Carrie’ll be dishin’ out in a few minutes, and it’s gittin’ cold out here. You ain’t runnin’ ’round like dem chilluns, keepin’ your blood movin’. Come on inside and git washed. You kin he’p us fill stockin’s for de young’uns after, and den go to church wid us."

"I’d like that," Nathan admitted, seeing that the subject was being quietly dropped. "You’ve all been real good to me since I wandered in here, I don’t recollect if I told you I appreciate it. I feel almost like I got a family again, and it’s a long time since I felt that way."

"Dat’s de oder thing Christmas is about," said Simon. "Famblies. Let’s go in."

On the East Edge
of the Atlas Mountains
French Morocco

Josiah Sanchez pulled his coat closer against the chill of the desert night and peered cautiously out over the parapet, his rifle clutched against his chest. In the dry air there was seldom any cloud cover to make seeing at night any harder than it had to be, but the Riffs were like ghosts. Josiah smiled grimly to himself and wondered what they would think about the Apaches.

Josiah was forty, six feet one, broad and solid and heavy, a man built for the kind of hand-to-hand combat in which the Foreign Legion so often became embroiled, yet capable of moving with the silence and grace of a cat if the occasion demanded it. For more than fifteen years now he had been roaming the world, ever since leaving the Jesuit order, which he had joined at sixteen, in part as an act of adolescent rebellion against his father’s grim and often hypocritical brand of Protestant Christianity. Martin Sanchez, though Chilean by birth, had been reared in a New England Presbyterian family after being rescued from a shipwreck at the age of four, then had converted to Methodism when the doctrine of predestination became too much for him, and gone on to a peripatetic life as a missionary, dragging his wife and two surviving children to what seemed half the nations on the globe. He had always more or less assumed that his only son would follow in his footsteps, and Josiah had been attending the academy, preparing for theological school, when he heard of his sister’s descent into madness. Already as big as a full-grown man, he had slipped away, delivered her from the asylum and placed her safely with an order of Catholic nuns. Their kindness and compassion had been all he needed to convince him that Protestantism was no longer giving him what he was looking for, and he had made his way to New Orleans and requested to be taken into the Order.

The Jesuits were an order whose principal work lay in education and scholarship; they were much renowned for their skill at debate and disputation, and they had introduced Josiah to books and concepts he had never known existed. For a long time he had thought their way might give him peace. After his two-year novitiate he had stayed on, studying matters spiritual and academic, aiming to advance from the rank of temporal coadjutor, or brother, to spiritual coadjutor, an ordained member of the priesthood, and eventually one of the solemnly professed, the highest office the order had to offer. That was a goal that could only be reached by many years of study, perhaps as much as fifteen if the candidate hadn’t been to the seminary, and was contingent upon his superior’s determination, which was based on his record in studies and his qualities of spiritual leadership.

He had made it to the priesthood, but not to the professed. Catholic doctrine followed far more closely than did Luther’s disciples the admonition of the Apostle James that "faith without works is as dead as a body without breath," and that had appealed mightily to the young Josiah. You weren’t saved as of right, just because you believed in Jesus; you had to work for it, to earn your salvation by your behavior, to serve the Light and advance God’s Cause by your acts on Earth. To Josiah, who had already been questioning how a man like his father could preach one thing, live another, and still get into Heaven, and who already knew moreover that many other religions proceeded on the assumption that you had to earn your reward--even the Hindus, who held to the idea of reincarnation, declared that the form you took in your next life was determined by your acts in the current one--this made good sense. And he wanted to prove himself, as young men always have. Yet the more he learned, the more his doubts grew. The Order had been particularly noted, from a very early day, as working among the American Indians; its members had been scientists and theologians, poets and philosophers, explorers and missionaries, pastors and preachers. It emphasized flexibility and had ignored from its beginning many medieval practises--regular penances and fasts obligatory upon all, a common uniform, the choral recitation of the liturgical office--in the interest of greater mobility and adaptability. Throughout its history it had been a controversial group, some regarding it as a society to be feared and condemned, others seeing it as the most laudable and esteemed religious order in the Church. It had even been abolished by Papal decree in 1773, only to be reinstated by insistent demand from below forty-one years later. The scorn it had suffered had been one of the things that appealed to the young Josiah, as had the pageantry and beauty of full-blown Catholic ritual, especially in the context of the other religions he had seen as a boy--Hinduism, Buddhism, American Indian ritual, all of which were far deeper into pageantry than the rather austere Protestantism of the day. But in the end, his studies only led him to question and wonder more than he had at the outset. When he discovered that he couldn’t keep turning the other cheek if injustice was threatening people right before his eyes, he knew Catholicism too had failed him, or he it. In 1852, at twenty-four, he had finally asked to be released from his vows, and had set off on a quest for Truth.

A man had to eat, and Josiah had drifted into a life as a soldier of fortune, in part because his studies had convinced him that evil must be resisted and that there was such a thing as righteous warfare--after all, that was what had been at the root of his difficulties with Church teachings. He had prospected in Mexico, fought the Apaches in the Southwest, gone with the American adventurer William Walker when he led an armed force into Nicaragua in 1855 at the invitation of a native revolutionary faction, and sailed to the Sandwich Islands, the Fijis, Guam, the Philippines, China and Australia. There had been an episode aboard an opium-smuggler plying between China and California. He had worked in the gold mines of Victoria and kept a store at Ballarat, then returned to the United States just in time to spend four years fighting in the Civil War. After that was over, he hurried to Mexico to join the Juaristas. A year later he turned up in the Austrian Army and fought against Prussia in ’66. From there he went on to Morocco to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. Wherever he went, he studied, observed, and talked with clergy, mystics, shamans, and anyone else he thought might be able to offer him insight. The problem he kept running into head-on was, which beliefs should he choose as God’s truth, since he couldn’t embrace all aspects of all religions? He hadn’t completely lost all faith; he was sure there was a God, that he had an immortal soul, and that he would live on, in some form, after his current earthly experience was done. But what God expected of him, what the true nature of his soul was, what the afterlife was like and what he had to do to earn a comfortable berth there, remained a mystery.

For the last year he had been fighting Tuaregs in the Sahara and Riffs in the Atlas, getting two francs a month (which was less than two dollars American) and living under a system of brutal discipline in which an offense that would go unnoticed in any other army would mean three months in the penal battalion for a Legionnaire. Flogging was common, and all orders were expected to be carried out promptly, efficiently, and "at all costs." The common Legionnaire rarely saw his officers, many of whom came from wealthy families and need not live on Legion pay; the sous-officier, or sergeant, wielded awesome power over him, the former’s decisions in matters of discipline being absolute, and for some part of the Legionnaire’s body or equipment to touch him was an impertinence for which the careless one might be flogged to unconsciousness. Corporals (Josiah had already risen to one on the basis of an insane courage and the toughness and experience he had garnered over the years), even cabot-chefs or chief corporals, were not of this exalted group, but they stood only slightly below it.

Perhaps because of the meager pay, theft from one’s fellows was the one serious crime and was dealt with accordingly: sometimes the thief was merely beaten into bloody unconsciusness; sometimes he was crucified or spiked to the barracks floor with bayonets; sometimes, if his victims were feeling especially merciful, they might kill him outright. A sentry who passed someone without proper authorization could expect, at the very least, to be hung by his thumbs and beaten senseless; most likely he would find himself crucified to a barrack wall. Deserters--and not a few attempted to become so, out of desperation, before their five-year term was up--were likely not to be brought back alive, at least here in Africa; the "friendly" tribesmen got a hundred-dollar bounty for live ones, ten times that for dead, and as for the unfriendlies, like the Riffs, you would be better off to be taken by Comanches. Those who were returned to their unit were spread-eagled in the broiling sun with their mouths filled with salt; few lasted more than a couple of hours.

Josiah and a dozen other men had been making a patrol along the mountains’ edge when the tribesmen had attacked them. By great good luck they had managed to make it to their current sanctuary, a stoutly walled oasis, with the loss of only two wounded; Josiah had the impression that the encounter had surprised the Riffs as much as it had the Legionnaires. For the five days since they had been besieged. They had plenty of water, fodder for their mounts, and if all else failed dates to eat, besides the fortifications to protect them. But the Riffs had numbers and height, and the Legionnaires scarcely dared stir out into the open save under cover of darkness.

"’Evenin’, Josiah," came a whispered lilt, and Sanchez turned his head to recognize Liam O’Malley. "Any sign of the beggars?"

"No," Josiah replied. "How are Higgins and Schmitt?"

"Sittin’ up and pleadin’ to have a turn on watch," the Irishman replied. "Ye’ll have to oblige them soon or late, Josiah. We’ve not enough men to spare."

Josiah clenched his teeth. It was true. They might have suffered only those two men wounded in their flight to shelter, but once they and the enemy were settled down and able to draw a steady bead, the Riffs had managed to pick off three of them permanently. That meant they were now down to seven men healthy, two recovering. How many Riffs there were Josiah wasn’t sure, but he was willing to bet on thirty or more. If they’d been willing to make a rush they could probably have carried the thinly-defended walls already; perhaps all that had stopped them was that they weren’t sure exactly where the Legionnaires were stationed. Josiah kept shifting them around, never allowing them to fall into a pattern which the foe might pick up on.

"I’ve been thinking about that," he admitted. "One of us will have to make a try for the garrison at Missour and bring back reinforcements." Missour was located on the Moulouya River and was, by his best estimate, about eighty miles southeast.

"If that’s what ye think, my friend," Liam observed bluntly, "ye’re a fool. It can’t be done. A man might be able to sneak out of this trap afoot, but if he took a horse or a camel they’d see him in a moment. And if he didn’t, he’d have no chance once the sun came up."

"Then the thing to do would be to travel by night and hole up by day," Josiah told him. "It can be done, Liam, if a man knows what he’s about. I’ve seen it in the Territories in America."

"Oh, aye," the Irishman breathed, "I’d forgot ye’d fought the heathen ’Pache on their native heath. But which of us is to go?"

"I will."

O’Malley considered this possibility. "Ye’re a corporal. Ye’ve no need to take such risks."

"I’m not supposed to fraternize with the rest of you as easily as I do, either, and that’s never stopped me," Josiah pointed out, with a brief grin. Then he sobered. "I’m the ranking man on this patrol; your lives are my responsibility, and the idea is mine. In any case, I’ve got the most experience in situations like this. The man best suited to a task is duty-bound to take it. I wouldn’t order anyone to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself."

"How long do ye reckon ’t’will take ye to make the trek?"

"If I can keep a steady pace, two nights, maybe three. At least I won’t have deep sand to cope with, the way I would farther east." He squinted up at the sky, estimating time by the stars. "It must be around eleven. If I leave now, I can get well away by dawn."

"How shall the rest of us keep the beggars at bay while ye’re gone?" was Liam’s next query. "’T’is the lack of a pattern ye’ve held to that’s kept us as unblooded as we are."

"We’d best get back inside and tell the others all at once, so no one’s in doubt," Josiah decided.

"Well," the Irishman sighed, "’t’is an auspicious night to be choosin’ for it. A night for miracles."

"How’s that?" asked Josiah.

"Hadn’t ye kept track? ’T’is Christmas Eve."

CL-Cross Horse Ranch
North of Eagle Bend
New Mexico Territory

Buck Wilmington stepped out onto the ranchhouse porch, a shiver crossing his broad shoulders even through his thick flannel shirt and short brush jacket. It wasn’t much past sundown, but already the thermometer stood at twenty-three; likely it would get down in the single digits by morning. Hope you got your warm furs laid out and some hot bricks ready to put in the sleigh, Santa, he thought wryly.

He braced his palms against the porch rail and gazed out over the yard, turning his head briefly to take in the tall log barn with its maze of corrals a hundred yards east, then letting his eyes track slowly around at the sheds, the truck patch, the well and the little orchard. A faint smile touched his lips as he compared it to the other picture that stood forth clearly in his memory: the parlor of Miz Abigail’s house in Kansas City, a three-storey brownstone mansion that advertised "23 Rooms, 3 Parlors, and 2 Ballrooms," plus the game room off the main bar, and was filled with Oriental rugs and ruby velvet carpets, crystal-prismed chandeliers, white-marble fireplaces and mantels, copies of famous paintings and statuary, grand pianos, flowers in vases, candles, pretty pictures and statuettes, and dainty French beds in airy, white-curtained rooms with open grates for winter fires--even heavily gilded chamber pots. He saw again the lavish greenery--holly and mistletoe, festoons of laurel looped through the bannisters of the grand staircase, long garlands of smilax studded with red bows festooning windows and fireplaces, and huge bouquets of magnolia leaves, red-berried pyracantha branches, clusters of nandina, and silver bowls of winter camellias and paper-thin white Christmas narcissus gracing the tables and sideboards--with which the ladies had decorated the place, in the tradition of the South from which many of them came, and the tall Christmas tree that stood in the corner of the main parlor, a-glitter with spun-glass ornaments made in Germany, ropes of cranberries and popcorn strung by Bella the cook and her helpers, and dozens of little wax tapers. He heard again the shouts and laughter of the pre-breakfast chaos on Christmas morning as the maids, also in Southern tradition, did their valiant best to "catch" the white folks before the white folks could catch them, saw again the bounteous spread of chafing dishes on the sideboard and the ladies in their frilly underthings and gaudy wrappers filling their plates and cuddling their small children on their laps, and then--oh, all the delights of gift distribution, with presents to every child from every lady, as well as John the bartender and Charles the piano player and Mike the bouncer and Bella the cook and all the maids, and between all the grownups, until everyone was surrounded by a rustling nest of paper and ribbons and a pile of often costly gifts; for Miz Abigail’s was a quality house, and each lady could clear fully $350 a week even after paying the madam her share. Afterward Charles would sit down at the piano and they would all sing carols, for of course none of them would have been welcome in church, and Miz Abigail would read aloud from the Bible and A Christmas Carol. "We’re family too," she would say, "and this is a day for families, just as Mr. Dickens shows us. In this life, ladies, we need to take what we can get."

A giggle sounded from within the house, back in the kitchen, Buck thought. He knew Sarah was dishing out dessert after a delicious meal of roast beef with potatoes browned around it, and guessed that Chris had taken it into his head to creep up behind her when she wasn’t looking and snatch a bit of nuzzling. He smiled to himself. Sarah had been so good for his friend. In the four years--well, going on five now--since they had met, he had never known Chris to be so relaxed, to smile so much, to come anywhere close to his own love of life. The other man, two years Buck’s senior--thirty this year--had always tended to the somber, perhaps in part because he had lost his ma to snakebite on the Oregon Trail when he was only eight, and had had to draw together with his father and siblings to make up for her absence, though probably the five road agents he had killed as a stage guard in California between his seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays had had some bearing on the fact too. That was what had set him on the road to being a gunfighter, and by the time the War broke out when he was twenty-two he had already had a fearsome name.

Buck had never met Ella, the Southern courtesan Chris still spoke of occasionally--the two of them hadn’t met yet back then--but from what his friend had said he thought he’d have had some serious reservations about her. Not Sarah: Sarah he had known from the first was just what Chris needed. Buck knew people, especially women, and he knew how they fit together and when they didn’t. Sarah Connelly was a freckled, auburn-haired girl of eighteen who was tomboy-tough in a ladylike way. Her father, Hank, had fought with Kearney in the Mexican War and liked the look of New Mexico, and after the peace he had fetched his family out to the newly acquired territory and used his service scrip to file on a parcel of land and start what was called a "stock farm," half farm and half ranch, on which Sarah had been born. She’d been scarcely five when her mother died, the lone girl among seven brothers, ranging in age from three to seventeen. Encompassed thus by masculinity, she’d had to develop a doughty spirit in self-defense. She liked men and liked having them around; she liked to feed them and she liked their talk. Men, responding to this, had flocked to her like flies to a sugar bowl, ever since she was fifteen; but it was Chris she had chosen. Hank hadn’t approved of either the young gunfighter and Union veteran or his boisterous best friend and partner, and there had been a good deal of maneuvering necessary before Sarah finally passed her birthday and was free to wed without her father’s consent. The three of them had sneaked off to Santa Fe, where Chris and Sarah had been married by the local Justice of the Peace, and Buck had stayed on to help them start the horse ranch he and Chris had talked of, sporadically, during the War.

It had been a lot of hard work, but they’d gotten everything done in time for winter. The house had a flat-stone foundation to a height of five feet, cribbed logs on top of it, and was covered with a close-set rafter roof--and it was a house, not a cabin, the difference being that it was built not of round logs but of squared timbers, eight by eight inches, which could be hewn nicely from twelve-inch logs and had a maximum manageable length of twenty-eight feet, enough to make one wall of a very respectably sized room, or two smaller ones. Looking at it from outside, you could see the sawn-off butt-ends of the interior partitions just protruding past the wall line, keeping each room draft- and soundproof. The inner walls were covered with vertical poplar boards, the floors were board, the doors and windows were framed in heavy sawn planks, and the fireplace was fashioned of rubble stone set into lime mortar; the flat-faced house-logs needed hardly any chinking in between. Planned for the family Chris and Sarah hoped to start, it had a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and two bedrooms downstairs, three more bedrooms up reached by way of a narrow corner staircase. It was long and low, its front gallery covered by a sloping, projecting roof supported on six square posts, four dormers breaking the slope of the house roof above. Buck had been surprised and not a little abashed when one of the upstairs bedrooms was awarded to him, the bigger downstairs one being for Chris and Sarah, with the smaller one that opened off both it and the dining room intended as a nursery. Buck smiled to himself at the memory of how he and his friend had ridden up into the hills three days ago and brought back a fragrant cedar, which now stood proudly in the sitting-room window, decorated with chains of colored paper rings, cranberries strung on white thread and popcorn on red, ropes of glittering beads, gilded nuts, ropes of red and yellow and blue Pueblo corn, ribbons, tinsel, gingerbread cookies baked in fancy shapes, cardboard stars covered with tinfoil and gold paper, and paper flowers, white and brown and red, that Sarah had fashioned from soap wrappers. The red and yellow and gilt beeswax candles hadn’t yet been lit; there was little point wasting them while the trio was in the dining room eating Christmas Eve supper. Buck’s smile grew rueful as he recalled the tussle they’d had getting the spreading branches through the front door, till Chris had thought of carrying it in cut end first.

The thick plank door swung open quietly behind him and Chris came out, his spurs softly announcing his approach; Sarah had tried, but she hadn’t yet been able to break him of wearing them indoors. "What are you doin’ out here all alone in the cold, pard?" he asked quietly. "Still got coffee and pie comin’."

Buck shrugged, not looking at him. "Just daydreamin’, I reckon, if you can do that after sundown. This is the season for it, ain’t it?"

"Thinkin’ about your ma?" Chris guessed gently.

Buck sighed. "Yeah." She had died when he was seventeen, terrifyingly, of one of those diseases women got from loving the wrong men. It had been the worst day in his life and had shaped everything he had done and become since. It was only a little more than a year, now, that he had found the courage to tell Chris about the errors to which it had driven him, the bitterness and fury that had sent him into Marcus Bentann’s jayhawker company for a year and a half of the Troubles in Kansas.

"She’d be proud of you, Buck," Chris told him. "You’re a good man. I know havin’ you in my life has made a big difference to me."

Buck turned his head, a faint smile tilting his black mustache and lighting his indigo eyes. "Funny thing, I was just about to say somethin’ a lot like that, only opposite around," he admitted. "I don’t know if I ever told you how grateful I am to you and Sarah for givin’ me a home here. I ain’t ever had a real regular home before, you know. Ain’t ever even stuck in one place as long as I done here, since I lost Ma."

"You thinkin’ of leavin’?" Chris inquired mildly.

Buck shrugged. "Ain’t sure. Not used to bein’...settled."

"If it’s what you think is best for you," the older man said slowly, "we won’t stand in your way. We care too much about you to hold you against your will. But we’d rather you didn’t. I need a man I can count on to help me make a go of this place. It’s quiet enough now, but come the spring--"

"Yeah, I know. Ain’t like cow-ranchin’, where you can start sellin’ off beef when it’s just yearlings. Can’t figure on no income from your colts till they’re three or four, and that’ll mean earnin’ it elsewise, like we talked about." They had discussed it all--using some of their land to raise hay and grain for the Army or finish young steers, contracting to break horses for the neighboring cattlemen, or hiring their guns again if things got tight. Not that either of them was entirely happy about that last prospect. Chris had too much to live for now, and Buck had always been something of a reluctant gunfighter, one who did it chiefly because it was something he was good at, not because he enjoyed it as some did.

"You know," Chris went on, "any time you want a full partnership, all you gotta do is say the word. We’ll go into Eagle Bend and talk to the lawyer and get the papers drawn up."

"I know," Buck agreed softly, a catch in his voice. "And I want you to know, means a lot to me that you’d say that. I ain’t ever...had no friend like you, Chris. Back when I was a kid, I...I never got much chance to be with boys my own age. Ma bein’ what she was, if I’d dared try goin’ to school the other boys’d whaled the stuffin’ out of me till I quit."

"You still know everything a man needs to, about bein’ a friend," Chris told him. "I don’t know how you learned it--maybe it was just something you were born with, like you were with that natural quick hand you’ve got--"

"Don’t forget my good looks and charm," Buck added, his grin suddenly breaking out with its full brilliance.

Chris cuffed him gently across the ear. "Yeah, them too. You know, Sarah’d like to see you settle down. Find yourself some girl you care for and start yourself a family. She thinks you’d make a hell of a daddy."

"Aw, shit, Chris, I’m young yet. Lots of ladies out there I ain’t shared the special Wilmington gift with."

"Just don’t let it go too long, pard," said Chris, sobering again. "I tell you, Buck, I never dreamed I could feel the way I do now. It’s like Sarah woke something up inside of me that I’d never known was sleepin’ there. I can’t even imagine life without her any more. It’s hard for me even to remember what it was like before I met her. All I know is I wasn’t much more than half a man, and I don’t ever want to go back to that, or see you live your life out without knowin’ this kind of joy." His hand fell on Buck’s broad shoulder and squeezed. "You’re too special a friend for me to want that. I hope you know that."

"I know that, pard," Buck agreed.

Both men were silent for a moment, looking up at the frosty stars. "Coffee’ll be gettin’ cold," Chris said then. "So’ll you. Best come on in. Sarah wants to sing carols afterward."

Buck snorted. "I got a voice like a bullfrog, Chris, you know that."

"She don’t," his partner reminded him. He slung his arm around the taller man’s shoulder and turned him back toward the beckoning gold of the lamplight falling through the front windows.

It don’t get much better than this, Buck told himself as Chris reached for the door handle. Hey, Ma, you watchin’? You know I got a brother and a home now?

A rich aroma of cinnamon-laced apple pie, warmed in the oven and mixed with the milky scent of melting cheese, floated out to greet them as the door swung in. A moment later it shut firmly on Sarah Larabee’s laughing rebuke of the men in her life.


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