A Christmas Concert for Hannibal Heyes

By Ida Arminda Moss

This story takes place in the town of Oneida, Texas, which later became the city of Amarillo. Hannibal Heyes is betrothed to a lady he met a year previously, Miss Paula Wellington, the sister of a Colorado horse rancher born in Great Britain. In the summer, Kid Curry was baptized in the San Miguel River in Telluride, Colorado, where his betrothed lives. At the time of this story, he and Heyes are still wrestling with the implications of his action. Texas Ranger Chad Cooper helped them to deal with a renewed attempt at blackmail on the part of Clementine Hale and has not yet returned to Laredo.

Oneida, Texas, early November, 1881

After the resolution of the Clementine Hale case, and the time taken to escort Miss Hale to Mexico, the two outlaws still had work to do, assisting Chad Cooper in the long-running land fraud investigation, leaving Miss Wellington more or less to her own devices. In the weeks before Christmas, they were able to participate in some of the local holiday festivities. There was a lavish dinner at the hotel. Parker’s Chapel, the thriving Union Protestant church, put forth special efforts to provide choral music appropriate to the season.

At the church service to which all four of them went on the second Sunday in December, they saw a hand-lettered poster announcing that the combined church choirs of the town would present two performances of the Christmas portion of G. F. Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, adding to it the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from the Easter portion of the work. The performances were scheduled for the afternoon and evening of the following Sunday, the 18th of December. A pot-luck supper was to be provided, and the entire town was encouraged to attend.

“Oh, that will be nice! I’ve not heard a performance of The Messiah in years,” exclaimed Paula. “It’s too bad they won’t be doing the entire oratorio, but I can understand that it might be thought too demanding for the small choir they have here. Let’s plan to go, shall we?”

“What is it?” asked Kid. “I always like to hear good singing.”

“It’s a long series of musical pieces—solos and choruses—about the prophecies pointing to Christ, and then about His being born in Bethlehem. I don’t know if you’d like it or not. An oratorio is kind of like an opera without staging, dialogue, or costumes. It was written in the mid-eighteenth century by a German composer living in London; that is, he wrote the music. All of the words come from the Bible.”

“Learn somethin’ new every day,” said Heyes easily, charmed by the eager anticipation on his lady’s face. “Kind of like a Christian version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? Sure we’ll go, Paula. Chad, what about you?”

“I’ve heard it before, but it’s been a long time—not since I lived in New Orleans, and that was over ten years ago,” replied Cooper. “I don’t mind coming along. And free food’s always welcome. Shall we try for the evening performance? Then we can eat first and be here early enough to get seats.”

On the 18th, this plan was followed. After an excellent meal of roast ham, mashed potatoes, baked prairie chicken, and other local delicacies provided in great abundance by the ladies of the church, the four of them obtained chairs about halfway back on one side. Later arrivals soon filled in the row from both sides.

The 32-voice choir, which had obviously been rehearsing for weeks, put their hearts into the music, singing clearly and strongly. The soloists, two of whom had come sixty miles from Clarendon especially to take part in the performances, all sustained their roles exceptionally well.

Paula Wellington, sitting bolt upright on the uncomfortable chair, tried to sing along quietly with the choruses as much as she remembered. Chad Cooper had closed his eyes to listen to the music, but was clearly not asleep. After initial hesitation at the unfamiliar style of music, Curry had begun to concentrate on what was being sung. He had read some of the passages that were being used and recognized the words, but the magnificent music showcased them, conveying shades of meaning he had never thought about before. A delighted smile crossed his face as he listened.

Heyes settled himself as best he could for the evening. He had been told the performance would take about an hour and a quarter. His mild enjoyment of the music was increased tenfold by watching Paula’s appreciation. Clearly, she was more musical that he had realized. He knew she could sing well and play the piano, but he had had no idea she would enjoy this type of thing. They had attended concerts together while in Idaho Springs, and on one memorable evening they had attended the premier performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in Denver with the Jordan family, all of them laughing uproariously at the comic opera songs. But this was different. Unwillingly, he began to listen more closely to the words.

Swept away by the glory of “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” the audience gave a collective sigh. The singers began again, with several solos taken from the Gospel of Luke, culminating with the joyous “Glory to God.” A soprano solo and a duet for the two women soloists followed, and then the choir sang another chorus.

There was a pause. Chad opened his eyes and sat up straight. People shifted in their seats. The tiny orchestra and piano swung into a stirring, almost martial rhythm. Heyes and Kid were caught by surprise, struggling quickly to their feet as everyone around them stood up, responding to some kind of invisible signal. Taking a breath at their director’s upstroke, the choir burst into song. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah!”

Heyes felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck. It was magnificent. It was breathtaking. It was terrifying. He shot a quick glance aside at Kid, but his partner’s whole attention was focused on the words and music. A few of the people around them, including Paula, were singing along with parts of the chorus.

Suddenly it was over. The audience, instead of sitting back down, began to clap. Wave after wave of applause rocked the small church building. Voices around them called, “Again!”

The director turned back to his choir. In a moment, the introductory notes to the magnificent chorus sounded again.

At the end of the second rendition, the audience began to file out. Waiting their turn, Miss Wellington, the two outlaws, and the Texas Ranger made their way to the doors as the church slowly emptied. Silently, they walked back to the hotel, retrieved their room keys, and went upstairs.

Heyes took the key from Paula’s hand, unlocked her door, returned it, and stepped back. She smiled up into his face. “Thank you for taking me. I enjoyed that so much.”

“I enjoyed watching you enjoy it,” he replied. He then realized he probably should have taken the trouble to think of something more appropriate to say, but she apparently didn’t notice, or if she did, she affected not to. “Good night.”

“Good night, dearest.” Paula stood on tiptoe and gave her lover a quick kiss, then slipped inside her room and shut the door.

Curry and Heyes settled in their room with cups of coffee which Kid had snagged from the pot on the wood stove at the foot of the stairs. Chad had gone to his own room. They couldn’t expect any poker, it being Sunday evening, so the only thing to be done was to get ready for bed. Heyes searched his partner’s face. The younger man’s expression was bemused, delighted, awestruck all at once.

“I guess I don’t have to ask if you liked it,” Heyes ventured.

“No. Though I don’t know if ‘like’ is the right word.” Kid gave a long sigh. “That was really something. Kinda makes you think, don’t it?” He took a swig of his coffee. “Didn’t you like it?

Caught off guard, Heyes stammered, “Well, I … sure. They did a real good job—and that music was awfully complicated.” He knew he’d phrased himself badly.

“Heyes, if you don’t wanna talk about it, we don’t have to.”

“I’ve never heard anything like that before. And the words—I mean, it’s good for Christmas, isn’t it? That’s why they performed it at this time of year. But …” He stopped. “All right! I’m not ready to think about it right now. Especially that last piece.” He stared challengingly at his partner.

Kid nodded peaceably. “There’s that Jules Verne book in my bag, if you want to read it.” He drew his gun from his holster and began to rub it with a clean rag.

Heyes had a feeling he was being coddled. It was a new experience, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.