“Mama, I’m cold.”
“I know, honey.” Four-year-old Sara’s mother comforted her. “But I’m sure it won’t be much longer.”
“Madam,” the stranger’s well-aged voice came through the darkness. “I allow it isn’t my business, but I don’t fancy adults lying to children. They handle the truth better than most grownups.”
“You’re right, Mister,” Sara’s mother answered. “It isn’t your concern, but I would tell Sara the truth if I knew what it was.”
“The truth is we’ve had the misfortune of being caught in a blizzard, and if my suspicions are correct, the driver has been letting the team drift. There’s a good chance, even if we can keep going, that we’ll end up south of Ft. Harker. And if my bones are right it’s dropped about fifty degrees since we left Ft. Riley. I’ve seen many a man and beast freeze in the likes of this storm.”
“Thank you. Now that we know the truth, I’m sure we all feel much better.”
The Concord coach swayed on its thoroughbraces, buffeted as much by the wind as by the prairie landscape. Snow fought its way past the curtains to mingle with the frosty breath of the three passengers. The sounds of the team’s hooves and harness tug chains were snatched away by the storm. Only occasionally the sound of the crack of the driver’s whip carried into the coach. By mid-afternoon the sun had paled in the heavy sky, allowing the blizzard full rein on the rolling prairie. The line between dusk and nightfall blurred, and the interior of the westbound L&PP Express stagecoach slid toward blackness.
Sara sought the comfort of her mother’s lap, snuggled into her arms, and asked, “Will we get to Ft. Harker in time for Christmas with Daddy?”
“Here, put this around you and the young’un,” the stranger said as he draped a heavy buffalo robe over the pair.
“Thank you,” Sara’s mother answered. “Don’t you want to share? It seems big enough for us all.”
“I’m going up to the box and talk to young Charlie.”
“What possible good can that do, other than chill you to the bone?”
“Now, you just have a little faith, ma’am. I know a settler’s place that should be close to our path. If we can find that, it won’t be long before you can be in front of a warm fire and some right good food.”
“Now, who’s not telling the truth? It’s almost pitch dark, and I doubt one can see the lead team.”
“Truth is, animals have better sense than we do in many circumstances. There’re six horses hitched to this stage that would like just as much as you and me to be out of this storm. If that young driver will let’em, they just might take us to that settler’s cabin and barn. Gotta have some faith.” Biting wind and snow swirled into the coach as the door opened and closed.
“Mama,” Sara asked, “how do I have faith?”
“I’m not sure what real faith is,” her mother told her. “The Good Book says it’s kind of like something you can’t see, but something you hope you can have.”
“Is it like a wish?”
“I wish we can make it to Ft. Harker.”
When the stage stopped and the door opened, lantern light swept into the coach along with the wind and snow.
“Come now.” The stranger reached for Sara. “Quick inside, where there’s a warm fire, just like I promised.”
The settler whose cabin the horses had found, helped the mother out of the coach and into a snug cabin. Inside, they went straight to the hearth and bent to the warmth.
“You’re plumb lucky you happened by,” the woman of the cabin spoke from the kitchen cook stove. “No good can come of a storm like this.”
The cabin was a soddie, but clean as dirt can be clean, cheerful with flour sack curtains and an impoverished Christmas tree perched on a corner table. The settler, his wife, their young son, the stage driver, the stranger, Sara, and her mother soon filled the small interior.
The stranger asked, “Just how far are we from the Weatherford cabin?”
“Well,” the settler answered, “I allow it’s about ten to twelve mile northeast.”
“Well, imagine that!” the stranger exclaimed, “We can’t be more’n an hour from Ft. Harker.”
“May as well be a million miles with this storm blowin’,” the driver said, stomping snow from his boots.
Their hostess fussed over the rough plank table, stepped back and wiped her hands on her apron. “I reckon you’re all terribly hungry. It’s early by the clock, but seeing it’s Christmas Eve, why don’t we eat and forget about the storm.”
After the meal was eaten and the table cleared, Sara asked, “How will Santa know where to find us tonight if we aren’t with Daddy?”
The settlers’ son, three years older than Sara, said with superiority, “There ain’t no Santa, and even if there was, he couldn’t travel in a storm like this.”
“Son, you hush,” his father scolded. “Some folks still believe in St. Nick.”
The boy turned to the stage driver, “Well even if there was, he couldn’t get far in a storm like this. Your horses was gettin’ pretty wore down, now wasn’t they? And they gotta be stronger than reindeer.”
“They was gettin’ some tired,” the driver agreed, “but I don’t rightly know if’n they’re stronger. I ain’t never seen no real reindeer.”
Sara turned to the stranger, “Santa’s got faith, doesn’t he? Just like you said, we had to have faith, and we got here.”
Taking his pipe and makings from a coat pocket, the stranger moved his stool close to the hearth, lit the pipe, and as the smoke scurried to and fro in the draft from the window said to them all, “Now I just happen to know a little about Santa, horses, and reindeer and since its Christmas Eve and we’ve got time, I’ll tell you all a story, if you like.”
The settler added a log to the fire while stools and chairs were drawn close and the stranger began.
“Now, you see, long ago, Santa didn’t have horses or reindeer. He was sad as a basset hound and thin as a candy cane, because even though he lived in a magic land, he couldn’t make his dream come true.”
Sara asked, “Didn’t he have faith?”
“I don’t believe in magic either,” the young boy announced.
The stranger’s voice was grave, but the twinkle in his eyes belied his scolding as he pointed the pipe stem at the children. “Now, it isn’t polite to interrupt a storyteller. You’ll have to be quiet and listen. The answers are all in the story.
“Santa’s dream was to visit each boy and girl on Christmas Eve and bring them a present. But, he just couldn’t visit all the children’s homes in one night. This is why Santa was unhappy.
“Mrs. Claus knew she had to do something to cheer him up, so she baked a big batch of cookies and handed a plateful to Santa. ‘Santa Claus, why are you sad? Life at the North Pole isn’t that bad.’ She handed him another plate of cookies.
“Santa ate all the cookies, then sighed. ‘Even if I hurry as fast as I can, I can’t visit each house according to plan.’
“So Santa and Mrs. Claus talked far into the night, until they decided the elves should build a magic sleigh. And, they agreed Santa should buy eight horses to pull this sleigh, and all the toys around the world on Christmas Eve. He left the magic land far to the north to find an eight-horse hitch of the finest palominos. He truly liked palomino horses – blooded palominos whose coats shone like polished brass. Ho, Ho, Ho. Santa was happy again. He just knew that once he had horses to pull his sleigh his plan would work.
“His search successful, Santa bought eight magnificent horses, trained to the harness and gentle to the touch. Back at the North Pole the horses were filled with the magic needed to pull the sleigh.
“Santa stroked his white beard. He hugged Mrs. Claus and kissed her on her rosy cheeks. ‘I think this will work, it just might do. With their help I can visit each house before the night’s through.’
“Mrs. Claus put a batch of cookies in the oven and adjusted her spectacles. ‘It seems like you’ve finally found a way. All the children’s toys will fit in your sleigh.’
“Santa could hardly wait for next Christmas Eve to arrive. He visited the workshop every day. Eyes sparkling, he looked over the shelves filled with row after row of colorful toys. In a few more days there would be enough for all good boys and girls.
“Santa left the workshop and went to the stable. The eight palominos neighed him a welcome. They were as excited as Santa to begin the magic journey. Santa spoke to them all and rubbed their shining coats. Abruptly he left and returned to the workshop.
“Santa grabbed a hammer and pounded on the nearest workbench. All hands stopped their work, all heads turned to Santa, and all grew quiet. ‘You’ve worked very hard, the job’s almost through. But there’s one more project I want you to do.’
“The plans were worked out and Santa returned to the kitchen for one more plate of cookies. Santa told Mrs. Claus about the special order he had placed with the elves. It was hard for them to go to sleep that night because in the morning the elves would bring the finished project for them to see.
“Santa was up very early, but not as early as Mrs. Claus. Eating breakfast without saying a word they both watched the kitchen door. Santa was so anxious that he ate two plates of cookies before the door burst open and the elves marched into the kitchen.
“The small, brass rocking horse they handed to Santa shone in firelight like the shiny coats of the eight palominos. Santa held it up and examined it from every angle. It was perfect. He placed it on the mantel, a reminder, he told the elves, of the eight magnificent horses that would make his dream come true.
“Christmas Eve finally came. With a laugh and a shout Santa loaded his sleigh, harnessed the eight palominos, and attached red ribbons and jingle bells to the harness. Santa kissed Mrs. Claus good-bye and climbed in his magic sleigh. Ready to go, he grabbed his list and checked his map.
“‘Giddyup!’ he shouted. With a swirl of snow, they were off. Above Santa’s housetop. Above the elves’ workshop. Even above the clouds. Santa was so happy he sang out with his merry, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’
“What happened next made Santa very sad. His ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ sounded like whoa, whoa, whoa. The horses stopped so quickly the sleigh and harness got tangled. Santa, the horses, and the sleigh crashed right beside the workshop. They were not hurt because of the big snowdrift that softened their fall, but the sleigh was ruined. Santa was sad again. He didn’t deliver even one toy that Christmas Eve long ago.
“All year long the elves worked to repair the broken sleigh and the toys. Santa sat by the fireplace eating cookies and feeling discouraged. Mrs. Claus saw right away what caused the problem and told Santa that next year he couldn’t say ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’
“Mrs. Claus knew he’d have to shout something, so she suggested that he shout ‘Ha, Ha, Ha.’ This cheered Santa. He couldn’t wait for next Christmas Eve.
“A year later the magic sleigh was again loaded with wonderful gifts for the boys and girls. Mrs. Claus helped Santa dress in his red suit. She had to make the suit bigger, because of all the weight he’d gained from eating so many cookies when he was sad.
“But at last he was ready. He climbed in the sleigh, checked his list of good boys and girls, checked his map, and then shouted, ‘Giddyup!’ Away they went in a swirl of snow. Santa was happy now, but he remembered Mrs. Claus’ advice, and he laughed a merry ‘Ha, Ha, Ha.’
“Good horses also know when to turn right and when to turn left according to what commands the driver shouts. The eight palomino horses were good horses, and they always obeyed. When they heard, ‘Ha, Ha, Ha,’ it sounded like ‘Haw, Haw, Haw’ so they turned to the right, and kept turning and turning.
“While the horses and sleigh circled the house, Mrs. Claus called out, ‘Goodness gracious mercy me, change your laugh to ‘Hee, Hee, Hee.’
“Santa laughed, ‘Hee, Hee, Hee.’ To the palominos it sounded like Gee, Gee, Gee and so they turned left. They changed directions so quickly the toys and Santa were thrown out of the sleigh and landed in the big snowdrift once again. By the time the toys were recovered, Christmas Eve had passed. Santa felt sad again.
“Mrs. Claus brought him cookies and milk, and they talked about the Christmas that wasn’t. Santa was ready to give up on his grand plan of gifts for the world’s children. Sadly he walked to the fireplace mantel to admire the brass rocking horse and remember how he’d believed the horses would make his dream come true.
“With a start he realized the horse was different. Attached to a fine gold chain, a small brass plate hung beneath the horse’s neck. He adjusted his spectacles and read the inscription: ‘Keep trying.’ He looked at Mrs. Claus. She smiled a knowing smile and suggested he find another animal to pull the sleigh.
“This made Santa sad again because he loved the horses. But he loved children more, so he asked Mrs. Claus and the elves which animal could possibly pull his magic sleigh.
“The old elf who made all the pictures and carvings of cats said it should be white cats. They would match Santa’s white whiskers and the fur on his red suit. Besides, they would be perfect because everyone knows that cats never pay any attention to what people tell them to do. So, magic cats should do the trick.
“‘No, no, no,’ Santa said. ‘Cats are too playful, they might chase their tails. Then my grand plan would once again fail.’
“The elf in charge of all teddy bears said that since children loved teddy bears, Santa should replace the horses with bears.
“‘No. no, no,’ Santa said. ‘Everyone knows that bears sleep all winter and sleepy bears just can’t pull the sleigh. What if they all went to sleep when I’d gone only halfway?’
“Another elf thought they should use dogs. Sled dogs are known to everyone. They would surely do the job.
“‘No, no, no,’ Santa said. ‘Dogs howl at the moon and bark all night. This keeps children awake. I can’t use dogs, it wouldn’t work right.’
“‘None of these will do,’ Mrs. Claus finally announced. ‘There is an animal that lives close by. Santa, I think you should give reindeer a try.’
“Ah, this was the animal Santa was looking for.
“He found eight reindeer and named them . . . , well you know what he named them. Santa hasn’t missed one Christmas Eve since that year long ago when he hitched reindeer to his magic sleigh.
“Santa’s plan worked just like he dreamed it would. After that first successful Christmas, he sat down by the fireplace with a satisfied twinkle in his eyes and enjoyed a plate of Mrs. Claus’s delicious cookies.
“Well, he was just a little sad about the horses because he truly loved horses. He walked to the mantel and picked up the brass rocking horse. Ignoring Mrs. Claus’s quizzical glance, he stepped through the kitchen door and headed straight to the workshop.
“Inside the shop he spoke a few words to the elves and they burst into a flurry of activity. In a few minutes they handed Santa the brass rocking horse. He looked it over, laughed a hearty ‘Ho, Ho, Ho,’ and thanked them all.
“Mrs. Claus watched him as he walked across the kitchen and set the rocking horse back on the mantel. He winked and waved his hand for her to join him. Smiling and pointing to the inscription plate, he put his arm around Mrs. Claus as she read, ‘Keep trying, your dreams can come true.’”
When the stranger finished the story the two women clapped, and the driver said, “That was a right good story. I wished we had some of Santa’s magic and those reindeer to pull the stagecoach on to Ft. Harker.”
Sara went up to the stranger, “Mister, you said we should have faith. Mama said faith is something we wish for, and I’ve been wishing I could spend Christmas with my Daddy. But, faith didn’t make my dream come true.”
The stranger stood, pulled a pocket watch from his vest and said, “Listen.”
They all stopped speaking for a moment, and then looked from one to another, smiles spreading across their faces.
The boy was the first to the door, and opening it, stood in the doorway. “It ain’t blowin’ and it ain’t snowin’ a’tall.”
Snow was piled in drifts around the buildings, but on the open prairie the ground was swept clean, and overhead the stars shown with unusual brightness.
The stranger snapped his watch shut. “It’s only eight o’clock, and if we hitch up and get on the move, we can still be in Ft. Harker tonight.”
The men hurried out of the cabin to harness the horses and hitch them to the stagecoach. When they returned everyone said quick “thank yous” and “good-byes” to the family, and then climbed into the coach. This time, Sara, her mother, and the stranger shared the warm buffalo robe. As the coach began to roll across the frozen landscape Sara asked, “Mister, the man at the cabin said there wasn’t a road. How will the driver know how to get to Ft. Harker?”
The stranger pulled aside a window curtain. “Look up there. All the driver has to do is keep that big, bright star right over the lead team, and we’ll be at your daddy’s door before you can say, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
— ❖ —
“A delightful gift of stories filled with Christmas imagination. Wonder-full!”
— Pat LoBrutto, Senior Editor Bantam Books
“Every short story is a snapshot in time; these have the gentle warmth of a Christmas snowflake on your arm, felt long after the holiday has passed. Each paints a sparkling picture. But the sum is what counts for me, a pristine and direct language that catches the Spartan lives and simple loves of prairie families. Enchanting stories from Southwind Writers.”
— Marlin Fitzwater, Former Presidential Press Secretary
“I have long contended that our area produces skilled writers and communicators out of all proportion to population. This has been true for more than a century, and Southwind Writers have proved it again.”
— Don Coldsmith, Author of the Spanish Bit Sagas
“Thank you, Southwind Writers. From one little rocking horse you have fashioned a wonderful Christmas present for all of us. These are perfect stories to read aloud by the fire on Christmas Eve. This lovely collection is sure to be handed down as a family heirloom for generations to come.”
— Nancy Pickard, Author of the Jenny Cain mysteries