Then Came Christmas

Randy Lee Eickhoff

Forge Books

Then Came Christmas
Chapter I
That year my birthday fell on Thanksgiving as it did every few years, and so I knew the year was going to be something special. Pa always said that happened due to the turning of the earth, but in my youthful mind I reckoned it to be something wonderful and magical. I always seemed to get the best presents on those years, and I remember those years as golden. Fall--we called it Indian summer--seemed to hang around a bit longer than usual, and the days had this rich, deep look to them as if they were tinged with a soft golden light, and the air had a smoky taste to it like a pile of old leaves before you put a match to them. The cottonwoods held onto their yellow leaves, and the oaks and maples their russets and browns well into November, before reluctantly releasing them just before the first snow, around Pearl Harbor Day.
That first snow always seemed to be a gentle one, with huge fluffy flakes falling faintly from the night sky just before Mom shoved me protesting up the stairs to my room beneath the eaves at bedtime. I knew that in the morning the pastures and the hill leading down to the stock dam below the house would be deep with snow. Pa would have already been down to the tack room and brought up my Silver Racer sled for me to use after breakfast. He would rub rust from the runners with a handful of steel wool while I gathered the eggs from the henhouse and brought in split kindling to refill the wood bin beside the huge stone fireplace in the living room.
Then the rest of the day would pretty much be mine as long as I didn't saddle up Spotty, my pinto, and ride over to the Sutter place to see Franny or else to the Stone place to visit with Johnny Stone, my best friend. Then I had to take care of Spotty before I did anything else. Pa was a stickler on that. The stock always came first on the Bar X--so called because we were ten miles from Ithaca. I would have to wipe Spotty down and brush him if I took him out before I did anything else. A rider always took care of her horse first and didn't trust that job to anyone else, so she knew the job had been done right, Pa always said. I reckon that was a holdover from the old days when a man's life depended often on his horse and knowing everything he could know about his horse.
Franny was a couple of years older than me, but that didn't seem to matter much to us, because we didn't play with dolls and such. Mostly, we talked about riding and barrel racing and pole bending because those were the only two events for girls in the rodeos. That year, however, she always seemed to have this secret little smile on her lips whenever a boy came up to her to say hello in the schoolyard in Ithaca while she was talking with some of her friends. Her friends, usually Ena May and Tillie Harkins, giggled behind their hands when the boys came up, but I pretended not to notice although that would annoy me some. Those boys would get this strange little smile on their faces, and they always seemed to want to know if one of the girls might want to take a walk out behind the schoolhouse and smell the honeysuckle. One time Jimmie Traylor butted in when I was talking to Franny to ask if she wanted to go check the honeysuckle with him, and I got all fired up mad and said he was a fool because thehoneysuckle had finished blooming a month ago, and all the girls held their hands over their mouths and giggled. Jimmie got this silly grin on his face and said I was the fool because the honeysuckle he was talking about was always in bloom, and he winked at Franny, who laughed out loud and gave me this look that made me mad. So I hauled off and pasted Jimmie smack on his winking eye. He fell to his knees and howled that I had blinded him some, and the girls did that little tsk-tsking and well-I-never that made them seem like they had watched too many June Allyson movies. Franny let on that I wasn't being ladylike, and before I took full stock of what I was doing, I popped her on her nose and blood spattered everywhere. There was no telling who I might have laid into next, but one of the teachers, Miss Strawheim, had me by the back of my collar and marched me into the schoolhouse and kept me after school dusting erasers. Mom had to come and get me, and Miss Strawheim told her what I had done, and I got another be-a-lady lecture all the way home and into supper. I had to call Franny and tell her how sorry I was for hitting her like that, but Franny just gave me this humph! and said something like wasn't it time I grew up? Somewhere around when she got to talking about how Peter Pan was only a movie and Jimmie was kind of cute and all, the way his cowlick swept across his forehead, I'd had all I could take for the evening and hung up. I saw her the next day at school, standing in a little crowd of girls, but when I walked toward them, Franny leaned over and whispered something in Ena May's ear, and the girls looked at me and burst out laughing. For some reason, the back of my neck grew warm, and I could feel my ears burning as I watched her disgustedly simpering and flirting with the boys. When Imentioned this to Stocker, Pa's hired hand, he just laughed and mumbled something about trees and sap rising in the boys, which confused me even more because everyone knew sap rose in the spring, and when I mentioned this to him, he just snickered and said he wasn't talking about that kind of rising. I gave up, figuring it was just one of those things adults said I'd understand when I got older.
I never knew quite how to take Stocker. He was a drinker of hard corn whiskey from Old Man Ferris's still over by the Badlands. Stocker claimed that he took only a nip now and then for medicinal purposes. That could be. But I never have known anyone with so many ailments as ol' Stocker--nor a philosopher with such a conviction that the whole world was veering off at an angle contrary to his interests. Pa said Stocker came by his reasoning rightful enough, having been a sawyer for a logging company in the Black Hills near Hill City before he came to work for us. I guess there was something about doing that kind of work that turned a man into a homespun Socrates. Maybe it was the cutting of the trees that did it. I don't know. He always seemed to come up with one saying or another for something that happened, even if they didn't mean much. Like when someone stole Oly Anderson's pickup, and Stocker said the whole world was a straw and everyone sucked. That was Stocker.
On the Saturday before that Thanksgiving, I was eight miles away from the ranch as the crow flies, down at White Shale Creek, which ran from our dam to the Bad River, gathering rose hips for Mom, who always made a tonic against the winter cold from some of them and jellied the rest. Mom was in one of her persnickety moods, snapping at everyone right and left. She had tired circles under her eyes lately, andtoday her lips pressed together tight as if she had a bellyache. When I slammed into the kitchen for the third time, I found a milk pail shoved into my hand and myself back out the door before I could draw a deep breath. Idle hands are for the devil's mischief, she snapped irritably after I protested, and I knew enough to keep my mouth shut on that. When Mom got to spouting Bible stuff, both Pa and me cut her a wide rein. I frowned as I rode down toward the creosote wood railroad trestle running past the old homestead. Mom had been becoming more and more distant--almost as if she was going into a retreat, away from the commonplace sinners around her. She had become, well, mystical and a bit more fanatical with church. Of course, that could have been simply the season, as we were coming into Halloween and all, but she had also taken to reading Christian Science material. It was almost like she was trying to convince herself that she was going to live forever. But I didn't make those connections, then. I was just confused because I didn't know what to expect from her from one day to the next.
I sighed and made my way through the thick brush above the homestead. Chokecherry branches scraped against the side of the pail and rasped across my jeans. Squirrels hopped along the ground in the plum thicket at the other end of the clearing, and high overhead, a golden eagle hovered motionlessly on a slipstream in the sepia sun, watching carefully in hopes that I would flush a squirrel or field mouse out into the open for him. The cries of the jays and meadowlarks and doves at the river's edge lifted sharp with warning. I always griped and moaned, pretending that I didn't like to go down to the creek and gather the berries and such that Mom brewed her magic elixirs from, but secretly I enjoyed it. I didn't tell StinkyPorter or Johnny Stone that I liked to do such "girl stuff," though, 'cause I had a hard enough time living down being a girl and such and convincing them that I could still do those certain things that guys did. Like when you hit your thumb with a hammer and wanted to cry but just knew you couldn't 'cause you would be teased the rest of your life for being a sissy.
This day, however, I was alone with the milk pail that Mom had given me along with instructions not to come back before I had filled it with rose hips. Spotty nickered and contentedly nudged a few strands of grama grass from where I had picketed him under the railroad trestle next to the creosote black timbers. I flushed a grouse when I entered the plum thicket, making my way down to the creek bank where the wild roses grew, working my way carefully. Wild roses could be as treacherous as barbed wire.
I took a deep breath, enjoying the feel of the sun on my shoulders beneath the red-and-yellow-checked Tom Sawyer flannel shirt I wore against the slight chill. The day seemed smoky, and I paused at the rusted pump that stood next to the old gray-boarded house in the center of the clearing to take another deep breath, enjoying the smell of old, rotting wood and sour earth, and the slight musty smell of moldy vegetables that came from the old root cellar dug into the small hill behind the old clapboard house.
The outhouse had fallen in on itself, the boards covered with thick moss. Jimson and nightshade grew around the old foundation. I walked through the chokecherry bushes to the river and looked down into the cold waters of a backpool. Two heavy-bellied bass stood in the clear water on wimpling fins. I dropped a small clod of earth into the water andwatched them waggle slowly out into the deep part of the river. I turned and walked back to the house. An old wasp nest hung in one corner of the old house. Weeds grew high around the back. The house was all that remained of the original homestead started by my great-grandfather, Adam McCaslin, back at the turn of the century. The McCaslins have worked that land ever since. My grandfather, Juris, had expanded the original holding during World War I until our ranch covered nearly four thousand acres. When Pa was ten, Grandpa Juris moved the home place further north to take advantage of the newly graveled Bad River Road that the highway department had built to connect Wendte, Van Metre, Capa, Ithaca, and Midland in Haakon County, where I was born. The cabin only had two rooms to it, and the roof had pretty much fallen in on them. The sun and wind and rain had bleached the wood past gray into silver, but a weather vane still swung slowly from the roof peak, where two timbers crossed against a blue sky. The beak of the rooster on top of the vane was slightly askew where someone had dented it with a .22-caliber rifle, and his sides were feathered with rust, but he still turned creakingly with the wind and seemed to flaunt his tail feathers defiantly at the world. Nettles grew in what was once the yard, along with tall shoots of sourdock and shepherd's club and tickweed that Abel Six Feathers would occasionally gather and take home to his grandfather on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the southwest after he came up to put in a few days working for Pa now and then.
Abel was there when I stepped into the clearing, and he looked up, his bronze face wreathed in a smile when he noticed the milk pail in my hand.
"Howdy, Sam. I see Samantha has you out choring for her," he said by way of greeting. I was named after Mom--the name that was her baptismal name and would one day appear on her granite-and-mica tombstone. I even looked like her with a spattering of freckles across the bridge of my nose and the auburn hair I kept clipped short. I was as rangy as rawhide bone and refused to be called "Samantha." A few days before, a couple of boys in Ithaca tried to treat me like a girl, but Johnny Stone popped one on the mouth when he made an indecent suggestion and the other I booted between his legs, sorta ruining his day. After that, the boys either ignored or tolerated me. Pa just took to it naturally. Mom finally gave up after a halfhearted attempt to make everyone call me by my full name. I think Pa secretly wanted a boy anyway. For the moment, I was annoyed at finding Abel there when I wanted privacy. Then I worried that he might tease me about this some day in Ithaca.
"Yeah," I grunted. I hefted the pail distastefully. "I thought I was going after some bass over at Harper's Pond, but I got fooled."
His smile broadened, and he turned to dig out another root of ragged cup with his knife. I admired it: a yellow-handled Stockman knife with a tiny black crack running down from the shield like a spider's web. He had been gathering for a while. A small pile of gravelroot lay on a tenpound flour sack beside him along with some late-coming fireweed. "Yeah. It's a bad thing when a person's life ain't his own.
"Uh-huh. I don't know why she can't do this sort of thing herself. Women's work." I spat.
His teeth flashed as he smiled. "Don't worry," he saidlaughing. His teeth flashed white, and I hoped I would have teeth like that when I was his age. "I won't tell."
I sighed inwardly, feeling safe. Abel Six Feathers' word was as good as the sunshine, Pa always said, and I reckoned he was right, for I never knew him to be wrong in sizing up a person. Ed Travers up in Pierre found that out when he tried to sell a small used '49 Ford tractor to Pa for nearly twice what he had given in trade to Oly Johnson. But Pa had talked with Oly before we went into town and knew that Oly had been having a lot of trouble with its choke before he turned it over in trade to the Allis Chalmers dealer. That was the last time Pa ever had any dealings with Ed Travers, as he moved his business over to the International Harvester people. Most people wouldn't have taken Abel's word for anything simply 'cause he was an Indian, but I never took much truck with those people. I guess I took after Pa in that matter.
"You going back home now that the branding's finished?" I asked.
He nodded. "Yep. Thought I would swing over here to the old homestead and pick up a few things for ol' Hump"--his grandfather, a Hunkpapa Sioux medicine man--"before I cut south. Hope you don't mind."
"I don't mind," I said. "Far as I know, we ain't got any use for that stuff."
"Most white folk don't," he said. But there was no rancor in his voice, just a plain stating of fact that acknowledged the differences between the two of us that both of us knew would always be there.
Fact is that society was pretty much divided three ways back then: the cowboys, the dam workers building the Oahe Dam outside of Fort Pierre, and the Indians. Back then, everyonewent into town Saturday afternoons to visit. Sometimes, there was a dance at the old dance hall below the bluff in Fort Pierre when the foothills cast long, still shadows across the town. Then the cowboys and the dam workers would go across the street to the Hop Scotch Bar, or down to the Snake Pit (that wasn't its name, but I never heard it called anything else) on the corner, or to the Silver Dollar Bar across the corner from that to do their drinking. About midnight, all hell would break loose, and fights would sometimes spill out into the street and the police would come and break them up. The Indians weren't welcome in the bars but bought their liquor from the Chetek Liquor Store halfway between the Hop Scotch and the Snake Pit and would sit in their old rustedout cars or on the gutter and quietly drink and talk among themselves in the grunts and clicks and snaps of their own language.
Some of the women would go out behind the Snake Pit with the dam workers or cowboys down to where the Bad River emptied into the Missouri River. The Indians parked their cars there beneath the towering cottonwoods. We knew what was going on in the backseats of those old cars that rocked and squeaked on their ancient springs, and we often hid out in the willows and laughed quietly among ourselves as we watched to see who came "down to the river." Once, we were watching when Tubby Watson stepped into this old '38 Ford with Olive Yellow Eyes and when we saw his thin shanks pistoning up and down, Stinky Porter flipped a cherry bomb under the car. When it went off, Tubby tried to leap up, banging his butt against the horn, but Olive had wrapped her legs around his waist, holding him down, and damned if that wasn't enough to give Tubby a rupture. He had a hardtime living that one down. He hurt so bad that he couldn't crawl off Olive Yellow Eyes, and the ambulance people had a hard time prying him out of that front seat, what with all the gawkers standing around and getting a fine eyeful of Olive Yellow Eyes' charms. And she wasn't bad-looking, save for a missing front tooth that someone had knocked out, leaving her lips fairly puffy.
Johnny Stone told me later that all of the boys came to know her pretty well a few years later when they finally figured out that sap-rising stuff Stocker talked about. She was quiet and gentle and kept their secrets from everyone. But I suspect that was just good business practice. Johnny used to say she could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, and maybe she could. Ed Preston kept her on at his hardware store despite complaints from the Baptist folks spouting gospel from their empty throats, because his business near doubled after he hired her.
Sometimes I would stay over the weekend at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Fort Pierre, and on Monday mornings I would go down to the courthouse with Bobby Buchanon and we'd join the others and watch as Jack Frost, the sheriff of Stanley County, led the Saturday-night fighters out from the basement jail for court. We could pretty much tell who had won by the pieces of sticking plaster and the scrapes and bruises. Of course, we always cheered for the cowboys, and sometimes, when some of the kids who belonged to the dam workers came down, the boys'd get into their own mock brawls and one of the deputies would run out and split them up, scattering everyone home. It always bothered me that the boys would avoid me at such times and that Johnny Stone kept himself close beside me when the dam boys would start their pushing and shoving. Once, however, I smacked one ofthose boys clean on his nose, and blood splattered all over his face and shirt and he took off for home, bawling like a newborn calf. Johnny yanked me out of that scuffle, though, and said something about how I needed to start acting like a girl occasionally at least. My temper flared and I almost pasted him one, but a freckle-faced kid beat me to it.
"You gonna be in town for the Thanksgiving Day Dance over at Ithaca?" I asked Abel.
He sat back on his heels and pushed his hat back with a knuckle. "Yep," he said. "It's been a while since the wife and kids got in off the reservation--except for the powwow over at White River, and that really don't count. Can't stay, though. My cousin Pete Stepping Wolf needs some help over at Wall with some horses. So, we'll probably go over there, then come back through Pierre for the Pearl Harbor Day sales. That'll give us some time to do a bit of Christmas shopping in Pierre before the snows come." He winked. "The kids have their orders in to Santa Claus already. How about you?"
"Naw," I said, scuffing the toe of my boot in the carpet of dead leaves. "There ain't no such thing as Santa Claus. It's okay for the kids to believe, though," I added hastily so as not to offend him.
He laughed. "Don't lose your faith in magic, Sam," he said. "There's time enough for that when you're older. What about you and your parents? You all going in?"
"Yeah. We're going into Fort Pierre first. Then we'll come back out to Ithaca. We always have Sunday dinner at Grandma's place," I said. "My uncle and aunt will be down from Belle Fourche this time, and Mom and Pa's cousins will be there, too, from up around Rapid City and Midland."
"Nice to have family around," he said.
"We do the same thing at Christmas," I added. "You guys do so, too?"
"Indians, you mean?" he asked, a tiny grin lifting his lips. I flushed. I could tell I was being teased, but I knew there was seriousness behind that teasing, too.
"I didn't mean nothing," I said, biting my lip. My face burned and I scuffed the toe of my boot against a clump of grama grass.
"I know," he said. He slipped the roots he had dug into the flour sack and rose. "But you can't help being you any more than I can help being me. My father was a white man. So I guess you could call me a half-breed. It's pretty hard living in two different worlds, neither one wanting you. But you play the hand you're dealt." He grinned. "Actually, it's better on the reservation for people like me. For the most part. My mother's people treat me pretty good."
"I didn't know that," I said.
"No reason for you to know it," he said. He frowned a little and added, "Don't know why I told you, either."
"But your name--"
"Why am I called Six Feathers?" I nodded. "I don't know who my father was. Mother won't say. I was raised by her parents. And they ain't talking, either. Of course, I don't see them often. They live up in the hills above Wounded Knee over in Pine Ridge. They don't have much to do with anyone who steps out of their world. Don't even have running water. They did their best with me, though." He frowned. "But there's always the time when you have to come in from the past. I wish I knew about my father, though." He shrugged. "He's probably dead now, I guess."
"That must be hard, not knowing," I said.
"You get over it. And if you look at it the right way, why, you get the best of both worlds."
He walked to his buckskin tied to a small willow by the creek. "Yeah, we celebrate Christmas, too. Best way we can, anyway. It's good for the kids to have something to look forward to. Sarah and Tommy sure like Christmas." He smiled. "And Anna and I do, too." He stepped into the stirrups and eased back into the saddle. He looked down at me and grinned again. "Tell your daddy that I'm grateful he thought of me for the fall branding. That'll handle Christmas for us. Otherwise"--he frowned--"we wouldn't have had much of one. Things are tight on the reservation thanks to Dillon Myer."
I nodded, remembering how Grandpa had nearly exploded when he read in the newspaper about how Eisenhower's man had tried to cut back on moneys for Indians living on reservations with a termination plan pushing them to move into cities. But the Indians had not been taught how to live in an industrial society, and they starved from loneliness and despair when they discovered they could not afford medical treatment and were given the worst jobs by the trade unions.
Abel lifted his hand and waved good-bye and nudged the buckskin with his heels. I watched as he rode out of sight. I sighed and shook my head. Grown-up things were hard to understand. I turned and walked behind the old house to a large stand of wild roses and bittersweet. The berries shone red and yellow, and I drew a deep breath, smelling the tang, then stepped in carefully among the bushes, trying to avoid the stickers and thorns.
Copyright © 2002 by Randy Lee Eickhoff