MARY KNOXíS CHRISTMAS

 

 



"Christmas finds Adam far from home. He takes shelter with a family who needs his help, and learns that the spirit of Christmas can manifest in different and sometimes mysterious ways."

 

Mary Knoxís Christmas

By

Jenny Guttridge

 

Mary Knox stood on the porch of the cabin and watched the rider approach. He was still much too far away for her to tell anything about him, but her sharp, silver-grey eyes told her that he was a big man and that he rode a big, black horse.

The rider had just emerged from the dark line of trees that marked the boundary of the family farm and the furthest edge of Maryís world. He was making his way slowly along the road that ran between the fields where, last summer, turnips had grown. In the last several months Mary had come to loath turnips. Now, in the middle of winter, the fields were all white, several feet deep in an unbroken blanket of snow. The whole world was white apart from the trees, which were black, and the sky, which was a distant, silvery blue. It would snow again tonight, or perhaps tomorrow, so Maryís mother had said. Mary was prepared to believe it. Mary believed Ďmost everything that her mother said.

"Mary!" Maryís motherís voice came from inside. "Donít you stay out there and catch yourself a chill."

"No, Mama." Mary said automatically. She stood on her tiptoes and hung from the rail where her Papa tied up his horse and looked for the stranger again. He was a lot closer now, but she still couldnít see his face. He wore a black hat pulled down low over his eyes and a thick, furry poncho made out of dark, brown, beaver pelts that covered him up from just under his ears all the way down to his knees. The black horse walked as if he was weary; his head hung down, and he simply pushed the drifted snow out of his way with his forelegs instead of lifting his feet up above it. In addition to the man and his saddlebags and the long barrelled gun that he carried, there were a whole lot of bags and packages hung Ďround the saddle. Mary felt sorry for him. Mary was fond of horses.

"Mary, come inside at once! And close that door behind you before you get your death of cold!" Maryís Motherís voice held an edge that Mary knew had to be obeyed, otherwise there would be whopping to come with the sole of Papaís slipper.

"Yes, Mama." Mary said with a sigh, but still she lingered at the rail and watched as the big man got closer. She was in no doubt at all now that he was a stranger. The family didnít have many neighbours, and Mary knew them all well.

Maryís mother came out of the cabin just as the stranger rode into the yard. Her face was all creased up and angry, and her voice was sharp. "Mary Knox, donít you ever do as youíre told?"

The stranger rode his horse across the trampled snow and stopped just a yard or two from the porch. Mary could see the breath smoking in front of his face and the sweat steaming up off the horse. The man touched a gloved hand to his hat. "Afternoon, Maíam." Mary immediately liked the sound of his voice; it was rich and mellow and pitched very low.

Maryís mother looked up in surprise. With the snow on the ground she hadnít heard the black horse coming, and she had been too concerned with Maryís disobedience to notice the man until his shadow fell across her. She recovered herself quickly. "íAfternoon, Mister."

The strangerís face was still hard to see. He was partly silhouetted against the glare of the snow, but Mary thought she saw the flash of white teeth. "My nameís Cartwright, Maíam. I was wondering if I might step down and rest awhile. My horse is kinda tired, and, I must confess, so am I."

Maryís mother hesitated. For a moment she seemed flustered, almost confused, but then her natural, inbred hospitality reasserted itself. She had retained a very firm grip on Maryís arm. Now she let go and straightened up. "Of course you can, Mister Cartwright. Put your horse up in the barn and come into the house for coffee. Iím Martha Knox and this is my daughter, Mary."

Mary, having wriggled free of her motherís grasp, stepped forward boldly. Maryís mother had said just that morning that it was only two days to go until Christmas, and Mary had only one thing on her mind. "Mister, are you Santa Claus?"

The stranger laughed, and Mary, looking up at him, was now sure of the teeth. "No, indeed, little Miss." He touched the brim of his hat again. "Iím afraid that Iím not."

The stranger took his horse into the barn. Mary would have gone with him, but her mother said he wouldnít want to be bothered by such a little girl and made her go into the house. He seemed to be gone a very long time. Mary wondered what he was doing. Surely, it didnít take nearly so long to look after just one horse?

Maryís mother bustled about. She put a fresh pot of coffee on top of the stove and mixed up a new batch of biscuits Ė the second she had made that day. Mary understood that. It was necessary to offer hospitality to any of the neighbours that happened to stop by and also to strangers. She noticed that her mother even found time to tidy the wayward strands of her hair.

The cabin that was Maryís home consisted of just one room, and all the familyís living had to be done inside it. The whole of one end was taken up by the big, black iron stove where Maryís mother did the cooking and heated the water for washing the clothes, and the scrub-topped table where she prepared the food and where the family ate. At the other end was the curtained-off alcove with the iron bedstead where Maryís Papa lay. Papa had lain there a long time now, ever since heíd hurt his leg so bad in a fall at the end of last summer. Maryís Papa was sleeping now; he seemed to sleep for most of the time. The rest of the room was taken up by the pot-bellied stove that belched out heat all winter and kept the cabin warm, an armchair and a rocker, a little stool and a crib that was still Maryís bed. The outhouse was out at the back: a little shack that stood back behind the cabin. Mary hated going there, especially in the winter and especially when it was dark.

Mary watched from the window until the stranger came out of the barn. He had taken off his poncho and carried it over his arm. He also carried his saddlebags and the long barrelled rifle. It looked like he was intending to stay for the night. To Maryís disappointment, he still had the black hat pulled well down over his face.

He closed the barn door behind him and looked all around as if taking in his surroundings. Mary didnít think there was a whole lot to look at: just the house and the barn and the sheds and outbuildings that made up the farmstead, a broken fence that needed repair, the snow covered fields and, beyond them, the trees and the mountains.

The stranger started across the yard. He walked with a long, swinging gait that favoured one leg just a little as if he had hurt himself once, long ago, and his body remembered the pain even if his mind had forgotten. Mary wondered if Papa would walk like that when his leg was finally better.

The stranger came into the house without taking the trouble to knock. By the unwritten rules that they lived by, having once been invited it wasnít needful for him to be bidden again. Maryís mother smiled at him with a brightness that Mary realized wasnít quite natural. "Come on in, Mister Cartwright. Put your things down and make yourself right at home."

"Maíam." The stranger leaned his rifle up against the wall alongside the door and draped his saddlebags over the back of the armchair. He was a big man, and he filled up the room. Finally, he took off his hat, and Mary Knox, aged four and a bit, fell head over heels in love.

The stranger was dressed in black clothes from his head right down to his feet. His shirt was black and made of some shiny stuff that Mary wanted to touch. His pants were black as well, of a stout, twilled material, spotted with slush and mud and a whole lot of other, unidentifiable stains that Mary knew for certain wouldnít please her mother if they appeared on Maryís frock. His boots were black and very dirty. Mary noticed that her mother didnít yell the way she did when Papa trailed mud in from the yard. And the stranger wore a gun in a holster tied down to his leg and hung from a black leather belt.

It was his face that captured Maryís eye and her tiny, fast-beating heart. He had a nice face, not bearded like Papaís, a wide, straight mouth that smiled as it he meant it, a long, thin nose with the faintest suggestion of a turned up tip and eyes the same colour as the amber beads that Mama kept in her special jewel box and which Mary was only allowed to look at when Mama was there.

He hung his hat on the barrel of the rifle. "If itís all right with you, Maíam," he said to Maryís mother, "Iíve taken the liberty of feeding the stock in the barn and doing one or two chores that looked like they needed doing."

Mary knew what he meant. Her mother disliked the seemingly endless job of shovelling out the stalls in the barn, and she didnít do it nearly as often as she ought to. Martha Knox had the grace to blush. "Why thatís realí good of you, Mister Cartwright. I do declare there are a lot of things around the place need doiní since Tom got laid up with his leg." She tilted her head towards the bed where Maryís Papa was tossing and turning and showing every sign that he was about to wake up. The stranger took a good, long look in that direction, at the bed with itís tangled patchwork quilts, at the big, bearded man that lay in it and at the little brown bottle that stood on the bedside table, the one that contained the stuff that made Papaís leg hurt less.

He accepted the cup he was offered. "What happened to your husband, Maíam?" he asked abruptly.

Martha turned away from the stove. Her face was flushed, and she looked harassed. She wiped her hands on her apron. "Tom took a tumble last fall. His horse rolled over on him, broke up his leg realí bad. I got it straightened and splinted, but itís gonna be spring before he walks on it again, aní I reckon heís gonna limp some."

The stranger looked Ďround the homely room. "And youíve been up here alone all this time? You and the child?"

He sipped his coffee and seemed to enjoy it. Mary didnít know how he could drink the horrid stuff. It was hot and black and bitter, and it made her mouth pucker whenever she tasted it. She much preferred milk.

Martha squared her shoulders defensively. "We manage well enough. Our friends and neighbours help us out whenever we need it. Someone calls by Ďmost every week with meat and some flour or potatoes Ė and I still have a cow in milk and lots of turnips from last yearís crop." She shoved again at the disobedient strand of her grey streaked hair. "Of course, we havenít seen anyone for a while now, what with the snow and all."

The stranger swilled coffee round in his mouth while he thought about that, then swallowed it down. "If youíll allow me, Maíam, I killed a deer a day or two back. Iíve still got a haunch and part of the liver out in the barn with my gear. Iíd be mighty glad if youíd take it."

Maryís motherís face lost its angry frown, and she looked pleased at the offer. "Well, thatís right kind of you, and I thank you for it."

Mary knew how much her mother must hate taking the food from the stranger. She was a proud woman, always willing to give, but reluctant to take anything from anyone unless she really had to. But it had been a long time since there had been meat on the table. They had been living on crushed grain porridge and endless variations of turnip stew for more than a week.

The stranger went out to the barn and returned with a sizeable sack. Smiling, Maryís mother unpacked several large slabs of red meat from their waxed canvas wrappers. Before very long the rich fragrance of meat stewing in gravy wafted through the room.

By now, it was growing dark outside. Carefully, Martha lit the familyís two oil lamps, and the cabin filled up with yellow light and inky black shadows. Maryís father woke up with a grunt and struggled up into a sitting position against his pillows. For Mary, it was the signal to climb onto the big bed beside him. She was careful not to bounce.

Maryís mother introduced the stranger to her father, "Tom, this is Mister Cartwright."

"Adam Cartwright, Mister Knox." The stranger held out his hand.

Mary thought that her father was just a little slow to take it. "I havenít seen you around these parts before," he said in a growl that made Maryís hair stand on end. She looked from one to the other. Even at her tender age she could sense the flare of tension between them. Papa was often angry these days. Her mother had told her it was because he had to stay in bed for so long. Mary didnít altogether understand.

The stranger leaned back on his heels and hooked his thumbs behind the big, silver buckle on his belt. His voice dropped a note. "Iím just passing through."

Still suspicious, Maryís father gazed at him with a wary belligerence. "Where do you hail from, Cartwright?"

"Virginia City, down by the Comstock Lode, hard up against the High Sierra."

Maryís father said, gruffly, "Youíre a long way from home."

Martha Knox was bustling about putting dishes on the table. "And at Christmas time, too! Wonít your family be missing you?"

The stranger turned to look at her. "Most likely they will." He smiled a little, but Mary thought that his face looked sad. "I was aiming to get there in time, but my packhorse took a tumble and broke his leg. That slowed me down some and left me about a hundred miles short."

Marthaís face filled up with sympathy. She wiped work-worn hands on her apron. "But what will you do? Thereís more snow coming, and Christmas is the day after tomorrow."

The strangerís smile widened. Mary liked his face when he smiled. His sharp, white teeth showed in his mouth and little hollows appeared in his cheeks that Mary could have poked her fingertip in. "Donít you worry about me, Maíam. Iíll manage just fine."

"But you must stay here," Martha said on impulse. She cast an anxious glance at Maryís father who was scowling darkly. "You canít spend Christmas all alone in the woods."

"Martha!" Maryís father said in a tone that Mary knew well. It was high time to scramble down from the bed. Wide eyed, Mary stuck her thumb in her mouth. Her Mama and Papa both looked angry, and the stranger, a little confused.

He held up both his hands. "I donít want to cause any trouble."

Maryís mother looked at her sharply. "Mary, go make sure the chickens are locked in the hen-house afore it gets dark."

Mary knew that tone in her motherís voice. Argument was not on the agenda. Reluctantly, she put on her coat and went outside. Not that there was any danger of the chickens being anywhere but safely inside their warm and cosy fox-proofed shed, she reflected as she trudged over the hard trodden snow of the yard. It was getting dark now and turning much colder. Chickens might just be dumb balls of feathers but even they werenít stupid enough to stay outside all night. It was just an excuse to get her out of the house while the grown-ups said words to each other that they didnít want Mary to hear. Sure enough, when she got there the chickens were sitting up on the roosts in the hen-house right where they were supposed to be. Mary closed up the shutter where the hens went in and out and jiggled the latch on the door a few times to make sure that it was locked tight. She sure didnít want Mister Fox getting in there, or Mama would be all sad and tearful in the morning, and Papa would be as mad as all-get-out.

As she was walked away from the hen house, taking her time Ė she didnít want to get back to the house before the shouting had stopped Ė she saw some strange marks in the softer snow alongside the path. Mary stooped down for a closer look. There were two of them, paw prints they looked like, just like those left by a cat only much, much larger - so big that Maryís small hand would fit right inside. She wondered about that. The nearest cat she knew about lived on farm several miles away, and while he was fat and lazy, his paws were not nearly so big.

Mary went back to the house via the outhouse so that she didnít have to go there again in the dark. Mama and Papa had finished their yelling and the strange man with the nice face was still there. Mary was glad. He sat at the table with his long legs stretched out underneath. Maryís Papa was sitting propped up in bed drinking coffee and looking only a little less angry than he had before. Her mother was flushed in the face, but that might be just from the stove. Mary figured that her Mama had won the fight Ė this time.

Inside the cabin it was warm and toasty after the cold. Mary loved it in the evenings when the whole world contracted to these four walls. She held her small hands out towards the stove and felt the heat on her palms.

Maryís mother called her, "Come and sit at the table. Itís time for supper."

Mary sat on a chair with a cushion to lift her high enough to see over the tabletop. Her mother said grace, and Mary squeezed her eyes shut tight. It seemed to go on for a very long time. She guessed that her mother was trying to impress the stranger. She peeked and found him looking at her. He winked, and Mary giggled.

Maryís mother served up stew for supper. It was the hated turnips again. Mary pulled a face. There was meat in the mixture, very tender, and the gravy was rich with fat and flavoured with the herbs her Mama had dried last autumn. She wasnít sure that she liked it, but then she saw that the stranger dug in with relish, using a spoon. She decided to give it a try. Soon, she had eaten everything in her bowl. To follow were hot, buttered biscuits and soft, curd cheese. Martha served Maryís father in bed. Mary could hear the mutter of their voices across the room. They were still arguing, but the stranger pretended they werenít.

He sat back in his chair with yet another cup of coffee. It was his third Ė Mary could count all the way up to five. She thought he must like it a lot. He smiled with his eyes at Maryís mother. "I thank you, Maíam. That was a real, fine meal."

Smiling herself, Maryís mother said, "And I thank you, Mister Cartwright."

Mary helped her mother with the dishes the way sheíd been taught. The stranger took his chair over and sat by the bed and talked to Maryís father. From the looks on their faces, they still didnít like each other too much, but their conversation was civil enough. They talked about horses and cows and the state of the land and lots of other things that Mary didnít understand.

"Damn trouble is," Mary heard her father say in his loud, rumbling voice, "I canít get out oí this Goddamned bed! Iffen I take another fall, Martha Ďll never be able ta get me up off the floor!"

Maryís mother got out her workbasket and sat in the rocker close by the stove. She hummed a tune as she rocked and darned a hole in Maryís other dress. Mary decided to stop being shy. She came out from behind her motherís skirts and walked over to the stranger, putting a hand on his knee. "Mister, are you realí sure youíre not Santa Claus?"

The stranger got out of his chair and hunkered down beside her. "No, honey. Really, Iím not. My name is Adam. You can call me that."

Mary gazed earnestly into his face. His lips were parted, and he was smiling. She reached out and touched the dimples in his cheeks. She could feel the roughness of a growing beard. Her small face frowned. "But itís almost Christmas, and Santa Claus comes at Christmas."

The stranger Ė Adam Ė reached out for her and lifted her up in his big, sun-browned hands. He sat down in the chair and settled her into his lap. "How would it be if I were to tell you a story?"

Her thumb in her mouth, Mary nodded. She settled into the crook of his arm. Close up against him, she could feel the steady beat of the heart in his chest and feel the heat of his body. Her grey eyes grew huge and round and fixed themselves on his face.

"Well, now. Let me see." Adam smiled down at her and began, "Coyote is the spirit god of the Shoshoni people. One day he was walking beside the river when he came across an old woman filling up her water pots. Coyote said to the woman ĎI want you to go on a journey across the desert. Carry your pots with you, all of them filled up with water but one. That one pot, you mustnít open until you get among the trees and the grasslands on the other side of the desertí Because Coyote is a god, and the old woman was afraid, she agreed to do as he asked."

Mary settled against Adamís chest, snuggling into his arms. Her eyelids were growing heavy. He dropped his voice a note, "So, the old woman set off across the deserts carrying the water pots. All of them but one were full, and they were very heavy. But the water pot that held no water at all was by far the heaviest. Soon, the old woman got thirsty. She stopped and opened one of the pots to drink. She thought to herself that it could do no harm at all to peek into the empty pot, just to see what was in there to make it weigh so much. She lifted the lid, but there was nothing to be seen at all. The pot appeared to be empty. So she set off again, over the burning desert. The empty pot got heavier and heavier. Every time the old woman stopped to rest, she took a peek in the pot. Every time, it was as empty as before. What the old woman didnít know was that crafty Coyote had hidden the spirits of the Shoshoni people inside the empty pot. Every time she opened the lid, some of the spirits jumped out. And thatís how the Shoshoni tribes came to be spread all the way across the desert lands from the east, right into the west, instead of living in the green country among the trees as their god had intended."*

Mary heard the end of the story, but only just. As Adam stopped speaking, her eyes drifted closed, and the little girl was asleep.

*******

Martha Knox lay aside her mending and got to her feet. She dusted the threads out of her lap. "If sheís asleep, Mister Cartwright, youíd better bring her over here to her bed."

Adam stood up carefully, the sleeping child cradled close against his chest. Tom Knox watched him from the bed with a scowl on his face. Adam didnít care for the man or his manner, but the man was sick, and he was prepared to make allowances. He carried the little girl across the room and laid her down in the bed. Martha removed her daughterís shoes.

Mary wriggled a bit at the touch of the cold sheet, and her small face crumpled, then she sucked hard on her thumb and settled back into sleep. Her mother didnít undress her, just covered her up with the quilt. Then she looked up at Adam. It might have been the light, or the flow of emotion, but her face looked softer and younger. "That really was very good of you. Where did you learn such an enchanting story?"

"My pleasure, Maíam," Adam said, easily, "I spent some time living with the Shoshoni. I learned a lot of their stories and legends. But why does Mary think I might be Santa Claus?" He said it with a smile, but his curiosity was apparent.

Leaving the child sleeping, Martha led the way back to the chairs by the stove. She sat down in the rocker. "Iím afraid thatís the fault of the children in town. We were there last summer, before Tom had his fall. Some of the older ones told her about Santa Claus, and sheís never forgotten. With Christmas just a few days away she talks about nothing else. You do know the story?"

Adam settled into the other chair. "Iíve heard it: a fairy in a red dress that goes from village to village at Christmas time leaving gifts for the children. Itís a Bavarian legend imported in to England by Prince Albert, along with decorated trees. Itís an idea thatís starting to spread over here."

Martha laughed. "Well, itís certainly spread as far as this part of the country."

"Damn Tomfoolery!" Tom Knox growled from the bed. "Filling the childís head up with stupid ideas. The young fools ought to know better!"

Martha turned her head towards him. "Oh, Tom. Itís only a story for children. Thereís no real harm in it."

Tom snorted derision. "Just leads folks to expect things they ainít gonna get." He floundered in the bed, trying to hitch himself higher against the pillows. The effort left him breathless. "Martha, you gonna sit up all night? You know as we canít afford all that lamp oil."

Adam stood up. He knew his manners, and he was the sort to be polite. "If youíll excuse me, Iíd just like to check on my horse before I turn in."

Martha gave him a grateful smile. "Iíll leave you some blankets here, by the fire."

Adam stepped out into a dark, moonless night. It was bitterly cold, and it was snowing out of a cloudless sky: fine, drifting flakes that wouldnít come to much in a whole month of Sundays but were merely the precursors of things to come. If he looked up at the sky directly above his head, he could see stars. He sighed, and the breath puffed out of his mouth in a cloud of white steam.

Tomorrow it would be Christmas Eve, and he was still a very long way from home. Not that he was homesick at all. That sort of thing was for children. He did pause to wonder what his family might be doing and if they thought of him as they sat around the festive table. Work was hard on the ranch in the winter; war with the snow was in constant progress: steers had to fed on a regular basis and saved from encroaching snowdrifts and rescued from freezing rivers, and there were always roads and major pathways that had to be cleared. His family would be sure to miss him when it came to doing the work. He imagined his brotherís indignation at his prolonged absence Ė the protracted period when they had to do all the work - and chuckled with pure amusement.

Still laughing quietly at his own, private joke, he strolled across the yard. He took his time. He didnít want to hurry the folks in the house. With just the one room, they needed their privacy to get themselves into bed.

The Knoxís were good people. Adam could tell that just by looking at them and at the state of the farm. It was a little run down to be sure, but that was only to be expected with the man laid up in bed for so long. It was plain to see that the man was going mad with frustration, chained to that bed, and his muscles would be wasting away. That was a problem that Adam had been working on, and he already had something in mind. The woman, with her fine fair hair now turning to silver, would have been pretty when she was younger, but time and hard work were taking their toll. Second only, perhaps, to mining and whaling, wresting a living from these hillside farmsteads was one of the hardest jobs he could think of. As for the child, with her soft, pale curls and her enormous, silver-grey eyes, she was an angel straight out of heaven Ė a cherub who had mislaid her wings.

Inside the barn it was very dark, and Adam couldnít find a lantern. In the faint light from the door, he found his way by touch and the use of his memory. He had fed and watered the animals earlier while there was still enough light to see, and cleared the soiled straw out of the stalls. His own black gelding snuffled his hand looking for treats, but Adam didnít have anything to give him. In the stall next door was Knoxís bay saddle horse and across the way the two burly mules her used to pull the plough and the wagon. At the end of the barn, in a roped-off loose box, was the familyís brown-and-white cow. He could tell from the way that the livestock shifted that all was well.

Outside in the snow again, he made a wide circuit of the farm, calling in at the outhouse as he went by. It was out behind the hay-barn, at the farthest end of the loop, that he scented something strange. Lifting his face into the wind, he sniffed. There was no mistake. He could definitely detect the odour of acidic musk in the air. He searched around and soon located the cause: a smear of brown slime in a shallow scrape in the snow. He looked a little further afield and soon found other traces Ė several clear and fairly fresh paw prints. Without any doubt, there was a cougar in the vicinity, and a big one at that. Without his gun, Adam felt suddenly naked. He straightened up and looked around him, but there was nothing untoward to be seen Ė only the bulk of the buildings and the broken fence and the white fields half obscured by the fine sift of still-falling snow. Without knowing he did it, he wiped the abruptly damp palms of his hands on his butt and backed away. There was no telling where the cat was, and he didnít fancy being caught in the open.

When he let himself back in to the house, just a single lamp had been left burning, turned down low. As promised, two folded blankets lay on the seat of the armchair, warming in front of the stove. The rest of the room was dark and quiet. The curtains were drawn closely around the big bed, and the child was asleep in her cot. Making use of his well-practised trail skills, Adam shook out the blankets and made himself up a bed. He used his fur poncho to soften the floor, and soon, he was soundly asleep.

*******

Mary woke up to popping and sizzling sounds and the smell of liver and bacon frying in the skillet on the stove. The steam and the rich aroma filled the room, and already, Maryís mouth was watering in anticipation. She sat up and rubbed her knuckles into her eyes. "Mama?"

Martha moved the skillet away from the heat and went to help her daughter out of bed. Her face was all happy and smiling, and there was a silver light in her eyes. "You slept well, sweetheart," she said. "Hurry and wash up now; breakfast is almost ready."

"Yes, Mama." Mary dutifully washed her face and her hands and then went to kiss her father Ďgood morningí. She had to climb up on the bedstead to reach, and Papaís bristly beard prickled her skin. Tom put his arm round her and cuddled her close, then let her slip away as Martha brought him a fresh cup of coffee, already his second of the day. Mary looked around the room. "Mama, whereís Adam?"

Martha ruffled her curls lightly as she went by. "Mister Cartwrightís just outside doing a few chores about the place."

From the bed, Tom Knox made an angry growling sound from somewhere deep down in his throat. Martha turned in mock annoyance and planted her hands on her hips. "Now Tom," she scolded, "you know heís only helping out in exchange for a roof over his head and a little home cooking."

Mary tugged at her motherís skirts. "Mama, will Santa Claus come today?"

Martha sighed and some of the shining went out of her eyes. "Iíve told you before, there isnít really a Santa Claus."

Mary felt her lip tremble, just a little bit. She fought back the prickling behind her eyelids. Only babies cried. Tears would only embarrass her mother and make her Papa mad. "But the big boys saidÖ"

"I know what they said sweetheart," Martha lifted on to her chair at the table, "but they were just teasing you."

Mary pouted. Grown-ups thought they knew everything. Mary knew deep in her heart that there was a Santa Claus, but she also knew with her instinctive, four-year old wisdom that Santa would never come unless Mama believed in him too.

Her little face lightened as Adam came in through the door. There was a fine dusting of snow on his shoulders and on the crown of his hat. His sleeves were rolled up to expose long, lean, forearms. She noticed that he was wearing his pistol in its holster on his hip. He was carrying Marthaís milk-pail, half filled with milk, and he had his long gun tucked under his arm. Martha Knox laughed with delight as she took the milk-pail from him. "Mister Cartwright, I see youíve become acquainted with Belle!"

Chuckling a deep throaty laugh, Adam put down his rifle and took off his hat. In the heat of the room the snow had already melted to leave tiny silver beads of moisture on the black felt. "Well, Iíll tell you, Mrs. Knox, itís been a while since I last milked a cow, but I guess Belle and I managed pretty well between us."

"I guess you did!" Martha served up the liver and bacon for breakfast, together with hot, fresh-baked bread and butter. The grown-ups drank more cups of black coffee, and Mary had two glasses of milk still warm from Belleís body.

When he had eaten, Adam went outside again for a while; when he came back, he carried a long, stout stick with a well padded cross piece fixed to one end. He took it over to Maryís father. "Now, Mister Knox, if youíre willing, I think thereís a way to get you out of that bed."

Mary watched with wide-eyed amazement as Adam lifted her father almost bodily into a sitting position and swivelled him Ďround until he was perched on the bed with his legs, one of them heavily encased in splints and bandages, dangling over the edge. At first Tom Knox treated the whole idea with contempt and suspicion. "There ainít no way I can walk on this leg."

Adam responded with patient firmness, "Iíve seen men walk with broken legs before. Iíve even done it myself, although I wouldnít say it was a pleasant experience. Why donít you give it a try?

Now, Tom Knox tried anger, the good, old fashioned stand-by, "Why donít you mind your own Goddamn business, Cartwright? You think you can come in hereÖ"

Adam cut short the tirade before it descended into outright insults. "Mister Knox. Iím trying to help you. If you can get about, then you can, at least, see how your place is doing - and stop those leg muscles wasting away."

Tom grumbled some more, but he was an intelligent man. He saw the possibilities in what Adam was proposing and agreed to give it a try. A big and powerful man who had worked long, hard hours the whole of his life, Tom had a massive and well-developed upper body, but his legs, from several months of disuse, had grown thin and weak. Once he had made up his mind, however, he wasnít about to give up easily. It took a lot of determination on his part and no little help from Martha and Adam, but at last, he got up on his feet and stood, balancing precariously while Martha tried to hold him up.

Adam showed him how to wedge the makeshift crutch under his arm and to use it to take most of the weight of his half-healed leg. At last, in his shirt and his long under-drawers, Tom was able to hobble as far the stove and then to the table and back. Martha stood and watched him. Pride and admiration shone out of her eyes. Tom finally settled into the armchair. He grunted with discomfort and rubbed at the ache in his thigh. It was going to take a long while and a lot of effort before he was finally mobile again, but he had taken that first, long step. He looked up at his wife, and, slowly, his face broke into a smile.

Adam scooped Mary up in his arms. "Honey," he said," I reckon itís time for you and I to take a walk outside. Why donít you come and show me where the woodpile is?" Mary, her face buried against his warm neck, nodded. With one arm under her butt to hold her, he picked up his rifle with his other hand. In the doorway, he looked back. "Mrs. Knox, can you tell me if youíve lost any stock lately?"

"Stock?" Mary Knox looked startled. "No. Iím sure we havenít. We donít have a lot of livestock now, just the mules and the cow and the chickens? Why do you ask?"

Adam sucked breath through his teeth. "I wouldnít want to worry you any, Maíam, but last night I spotted some sign outside that Iím pretty sure was a cat."

Mary peeked out from Adamís collar and saw that her motherís face had grown pale. Her father was grim. "A cat, Cartwright? Are you sure about that?"

Adam looked at him for a long, tense moment, as if wondering whether his word was in question. Then he ducked his head. "Iím sure."

Adam swung the axe with a steady rhythm throughout the morning, and Mary, bundled up in her topcoat and mittens, sat on top of the log pile and watched him. In between times when he paused for breath and the air Ďround his face turned all frothy and white with the steam, he asked her about her toys and her friends on the neighbouring farms and the things that she liked to do. Then he told her about his life on a ranch in a far away place called Nevada -Ėjust the small, everyday sort of things that a child of four might understand.

Later that day, after she had taken her nap, Mary went out to the barn with Adam and watched while he groomed the horses and mules. Then he sat her up on his big, black horse and walked her around the yard. She giggled and squeaked with delight. The snow had stopped falling and it was slightly less cold, but the clouds were piling up over the horizon, and the sky was a pinky-grey. The air smelled funny, sort of dusty, and Adam kept looking around him and studying the tree line with a worried and far-away look on his face. He never moved more than an armís length away from his rifle.

Mary was looking too Ė watching the road that led into the trees. It was the only road that came to the farm, and when Santa Clause called, that was the path he would have to use. She was convinced that Santa was coming; she could already see him in her mindís eye, all dressed in red, just like the big boys had told her and riding a fine white horse. She was still awaiting his knock on the door that night when her mother tucked her up in her bed.

*******

It was almost completely dark in the cabin when Mary woke up. Only the faintest night-light spilled through the window. She sat up in bed and listened. It was all very quiet. Her Mama and Papa were sleeping behind their curtain, and Adam was wrapped up in his blankets on the floor, snoring softly. She could see the dark curve of his cheek and the slow, steady rise of his chest.

Mary was certain that someone had called her name, just as sure as she could be. It hadnít been Mama or Papa, and it certainly hadnít been Adam Ė he was fast asleep. It must have been Santa Claus! Mary just knew it! He had to be right outside in the yard! She couldnít keep him waiting. That wouldnít be nice. She clambered out of the bed.

It might have been dark, but Mary had lived in the cabin for the whole of her life. The faint, grey light was just enough for her to find her way about. She found her shoes tucked under her cot, just where Mama put them, and pushed her feet into them without bothering with stockings. She put her coat on over her long, flannel night-gown and carefully did up the buttons. By standing on tiptoe, she was just able to reach the latch of the door.

Outside, it was snowing hard. The blizzard Mama had talked about, the one that had been threatening for two or three days, had arrived with a vengeance. All she could see from the edge of the porch were great, fluffy bundles of snowflakes falling out of a coal-black sky. She couldnít see Santa, but she knew he was there, just out of sight in the snowstorm. She was determined to find him, and she knew that she didnít have long. It was Christmas Eve night, and Santa had lots of farms and ranches to visit. Mary pulled her coat tightly around her and set out into the night to find him.

*******

Martha Knox screamed in anguished desperation, "But where is she! Where has she gone!" Her face was bloodless-white and tear-stained; her eyes were frantic, and she was teetering on the very edge of hysteria.

Tom did his best his best to hold on to her flailing fists. Balancing unsteadily on his crutch and his one, good leg it wasnít an easy thing to do. "Martha! Stop it! Donít be a fool! Cartwright will find her. Thereís no point in you rushing off in a snow-storm and getting lost out there too!"

As if on cue, Adam came in through the door. The snow had settled thickly across his shoulders and lay in his hair. He already wore his gunbelt buckled about his hips; now he pulled his poncho on over his head and reached for his hat. "I can see which way she went," he said as he dressed. "There are traces of her footprints still left in the snow, but itís starting to drift, and Iíll have to hurry." He brushed off the last of the melting snow and jammed his hat on his head. He paused one more moment to look at the faces of the frantic parents. "Try not to worry. Iíll bring her back." Taking his rifle with him, he went out and closed the door tight behind him.

The snow had almost stopped falling, but the cloudbanks still threatened. The first, fledgling, pink light of morning lit the pregnant underbellies of the snow-clouds. A few odd snowflakes still drifted downwards. A foot of fresh snow had fallen during the night, making the white fields even whiter. It lay in a soft blanket all about, blurring the outlines of the buildings and the fence-lines and obliterating all other signs of human habitation. The white world was silent; all sound was deadened except for the harsh rasp of his breathing. Adam cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "Mary!"

He didnít really expect the child to answer. He had already checked the barn and the outhouse and all the other likely places and satisfied himself that she wasnít anywhere close at hand. Now, with fierce determination, he set out to follow the faint and rapidly fading tracks in the snow.

He had to hurry. Bitter cold, the wind was rising, and it blew off the hill in gusts. It picked up the loose, new fallen snow in flurries and swirled it around some, high in the air, before dropping it down in a different place. It wouldnít be long before all traces of the childís small footprints were wiped away.

The trail led Adam out of the yard in the direction of the road. All that could be seen of it was the two stark lines of fence posts in an unbroken field of snow. At first it seemed as if the child had known where she was going and had, indeed, had some sense of purpose when she went wandering off into the night. Then the footprints started to wander about between the fences as if the little girl had lost her direction and started to stagger as the dark and the cold had begun to strike home. Crouching, Adam tried to follow the diminishing line with his eyes, but the white of the snow and the grey morning light conspired together to deceive him. All the time the wind was blowing, covering up the tracks.

It took all of Adamís considerable skill as a tracker to follow the trail half way to the trees. By then, all trace of the footprints had been wiped away, but it was plain to see which was the child was headed. Adam chaffed his hands together and wished he had thought to bring his gloves. His breath formed great clouds of steam in front of his face, and the cold made his eyes water. Behind him, over his shoulder, the sun was starting to rise: huge and orange and slightly elongated, stretched across the horizon and striped with grey and pink clouds. It lit the landscape to fire.

Adam tucked the rifle under his arms and pulled the brim of his hat down over his face, shielding his eyes from the glare. Following the line of the vanished footsteps, he headed into the woods.

The snow lay less thickly under the trees. In places there was no more than a light, white dusting over the pine needle litter; in others, smoothly contoured drifts piled against tree roots and obscured the criss-crossing paths. Adam found clear traces of rabbits and foxes, small rodents and all kinds of birds. Nowhere could he find the tracks of a child.

"Mary! Mary!" His voice boomed through the woods. There was no echo. His voice was absorbed by the trees and the snow and the distance. Now he couldnít see well for a different reason: the light didnít penetrate under the trees. The woods were gloomy and utterly quiet. There was no drip of water or rustle of leaf to break the brooding silence Ė not even the morning song of a bird. Even the air was still, and very, very cold. He could feel the nip of frost on his cheeks, and his fingers were starting to tingle. He began to doubt that he would find the child alive.

Stepping carefully, as silent as the trees themselves, he moved through the cloud of his own steaming breath. It was starting to snow all over again, stray snowflakes drifting down through the gaps in the treetops. The woods grew denser and even darker and, if possible, colder. Adam studied the ground. There was no sign that anything living had passed this way since at least the day before.

Then something caught his attention Ė not a sound or a movement or even a smell, but more a sensation of air faintly shifting, an easing of pressure against his skin. The dark shadows in front of him were empty, but he had the feeling they had just been vacated. A familiar burning itch asserted itself right in the centre of his back. It was an almost physic phenomenon he had come to trust down the years, a sort of seventh sense. It told him that someone Ė or something Ė was watching him.

It was the print of a paw in the snow that gave the watcherís identity away. Crisp and clean, the print was brand new; a big cat had passed that way only a minute or two before. Adam had almost forgotten the cat. In his anxiety to find the child he had pushed the threat of the cougar into the back of his mind. He tightened his grip on the rifle. Eyes and ears alert he crept forward; now he was stalking, just as surely as he was being stalked. His belly tightened with expectation and a certain measure of fear. It was not unknown for a full-grown cat to turn and attack a man. Inside the poncho, he was starting to sweat.

Pausing again, he listened. He heard the hiss of his own breath as he sucked it in through his teeth and, beyond it, the breathing of another, a rapid, heavy pant. He brought the rifle Ďround into the ready position. He held his breath, concentrating intently. He had to be sure of his target. Was it the cat out there in the bushes, or was it the lost little girl? Then he heard it, a low, yowling growl.

Adam got off two, quick shots, firing as fast as he could pump the chamber. The heavy rifle bucked and roared. The cat screamed in fury and leapt away. Adam heard it go but he didnít see it well enough to shoot at it again: just a flash of tawny hide in the shadows and swaying branches shedding snow. He knew that heíd missed. The sound of the shots was lost in the trees. Adam sucked breath and levered another cartridge into the breach. Now, he trod even more cautiously than before, all but feeling his way. He was well aware that the cougar could creep round behind him.

The cat growled again. Adam thought that the sound came from somewhere in front of him, but he wasnít entirely certain. It was further away now and probably moving off. He reminded himself firmly that he wasnít here to hunt cat. Looking around him, he realized that he was deep in the forest. He didnít see how a small child could possibly have wandered so far. The best thing, he decided, was to turn back, to search his back-trail as he went and then to strike off in another direction - to try another path. He turned around to retrace his steps and came face to face with the cat.

It was a big animal, a fully-grown female with a swollen, heavily pregnant belly. She was some nine feet long including the tail, and she must have weighed two hundred pounds. She had glorious, golden eyes and a brindled coat and huge, soft, spreading paws. She rolled back her lips and snarled at him from twenty feet away. Adamís mouth was abruptly dry. He had been caught flat-footed with his weight on his heels and the rifle held awkwardly across his body. The cat lowered herself into a crouch and spat at him.

Adam found himself in a dilemma. He could swing the rifle Ďround and fire in much the same time that it would take the cat to leap the distance between them. In fact, he thought, he might even have an edge. What worried him more was that he had just found out where Mary Knox was hidden. She lay on the ground between them, still wrapped in her woollen coat. She was half curled in the fork of a tree root; a small drift of snow had piled up against her. She was rather closer to the cougar than she was to Adam, and he had no doubt at all that the cougar knew she was there.

Adam let go a pent up breath, the warmed air turning instantly to steam in front of his face. The cougar hissed, her own breath smoking. The man and the beast eyed one another, each of them waiting for the other to move. Very slowly, Adam lowered the rifle. He knew he should kill the cat if he could. She, and the cubs that she carried, if they decided to stay in these woods, would wreck havoc on the local farming community come springtime, raiding the homesteads and slaughtering young stock. His inbred and instinctive hatred of cougar-kind insisted he do it - but she was such a magnificent beast! He brought the gun into a firing position, aimed at her chest, but he couldnít bring himself to pull the trigger.

Adam knew a little about the species; he was prepared to wager that this old she-cat, wise in the ways of her kind and well aware of the perils posed by the proximity of man, was just passing through, heading for higher, uninhabited places where she could raise her family in peace. On that early, Christmas morning, he was prepared to give her her life.

It was as if the she-cat read his mind, or, more probably, she sensed the easing of tension in his body, the change in his intention. She gave him one more, savage hiss for good measure and waved her tail slowly from side to side as if daring him to follow. Then she turned and sprang away. In the blink of an eye she was gone. Adam released a steamy sigh of relief.

Kneeling down on the cold, hard ground, he reached out to touch the childís cheek. Her skin was as cold as ice and her face as white as the snow piled up against her. Her lips were blue. "Mary," Adam called her name softly and then again, more loudly, "Mary!" She didnít respond. She looked as if she might be asleep.

Adam lifted her and gathered her into his arms. He could detect no trace of warmth in her tiny body, but, just once, he thought he felt the faintest whisper of breath. Opening the buttons of his shirt all the way down to the waist, he drew the child against his chest and pulled his warm poncho tightly around them both. Sharing his body heat as well as he was able, he hurried back to the house.

*******

Mary opened her eyes. She didnít feel cold any more Ė in fact, she was tingly warm. She felt as if she had slept for a very long time, and yet she was still sleepy. Right in front of her was her motherís face, leaning over her bed. Her Mamaís lips were smiling and so were her eyes, although there were silvery traces of tears staining her cheeks as if she had just been crying. Mary reached out her arms. "Mama!"

Martha picked her arm and held her tightly against her. "There then, sweetheart, youíre home again now. Everythingís going to be all right."

Mary looked round the room. Her father looked happy too, but he had a peculiar, pinched look on his bearded face. His eyes glistened and sparkled as if they were wet. Further away, Adam was perched on the edge of the table. His nice mouth was smiling as well. Then Mary caught sight of the tree: a very small pine tree standing in the light from the window. Every single branch was decorated with bits of wool and scraps of cloth and twists of paper that had been torn from Mamaís mail-order catalogue. Mary gazed at it in wonder for a long, silent moment. Then, "Mama, did Santa Claus come?"

Martha blinked and held back fresh tears. Still holding her daughter close, she sat herself down in the rocking chair. "He came while you were asleep, darling. Look what he left you."

Martha gave Mary her gift. It was a corn-dolly, carefully plaited from long stalks of straw with arms and legs and a head. The dolly had bright yellow wool for her hair and a bonnet made from a left over scrap from Maryís best dress. Her frock had been sewn from the tail of Papaís worn out shirt, and she had an apron just like Mamaís. Her eyes were Mamaís bright amber beads. Mary smiled and hugged her dolly. She was still sleepy and her eyes drifted closed. "Mama," she said drowsily, "Whereís the nice kitty gone?"

"Kitty, darling?" Martha frowned. "What do you mean?"

Mary snuggled closer. "The big, warm, kitty that slept with me in the woods last night. She sure had a big old purr, but her tongue was awful rough when she licked me."

Amazed, Martha looked up at Tom who shook his head sternly. "She must have been dreaming. The cat would have killed her if Adam hadnít gotten there first."

But Adam was thinking: had the cat led him through the woodlands, and had the cat deliberately turned him around? How could the child have survived all night out in that bitter cold? Was it just possible that the cougar, possessed of some odd maternal instinct, had lain down beside her and kept her warm with her body? He wasnít about to say a word; the whole idea was preposterous. Ever the pragmatist, he didnít really believe in such things. But legend had it that Romulus and Remus had been nurtured by a she-wolf. In his heart, he was thankful that he hadnít killed the big cat.

Martha lowered her head and whispered into Maryís hair, "In the spring, darling when you are five, you shall have a kitten all of your own."

Drifting off to sleep, Mary just about heard her and smiled. That was another promise she would remember. She might have missed Santa Claus, but this was still the happiest Christmas she had ever had.

 

  • ĎPrayer to the Great Mysteryí Shoshoni legends collected by Edward S. Curtis.

 

Potters Bar 2001.

 

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