A Christmas Refuge

By Kathy Knudsen

The winter storm had taken them by surprise with how quickly it had moved in, and within a matter of four hours the storm had dropped nearly a foot of snow on top of the several inches of well packed snow in the Sierra foothills. Winter always came early in the Sierra Mountains and Heyes and Curry usually did their best to avoid these ranges from mid October well into late April. But their friend, Soapy Saunders was getting on in years and when he invited them to spend the Christmas Holidays with him in San Francisco, they felt a sort of obligation, not knowing if they would even have another opportunity in years to come.

As they made their way toward the mountain pass, warm Chinook winds crested the mountains, then dipped and cooled and became trapped in the valley, whipped the snow into spinning spirals of white that stung their faces and drastically limited their vision.

“Kid!” Heyes shouted through the layers of his wool scarf that covered his face from his nose to his chin. “Over there!” he shouted and raised a gloved hand to point off in the direction of an old barn barely visible in the icy fog.

Kid nodded his head and both men guided their horses toward the site of the night's refuge.

The barn was old and weathered, with a dirt floor and cracks in the chinking that let the cold wind and even some snow slip in. But there were stalls for the horses, and the shutters on the windows still latched. Bales of long since dried out hay were piled against one wall and sprigs of hay blown about by the wind, fell through the cracks of the loft flooring.

“We can clear an area in the center of the barn and use some of the hay to build a fire,” Heyes said after moving his sorrel into a stall.

“That would work for a starter, but what do we use to keep the fire going? It's gonna get plenty cold in here tonight,” Kid replied, then stopped and sniffed the air. “Heyes, do you smell something?”

“I smell a lot of things, none of which are particularly good.”

Kid sniffed a second time. It smells like...Lemon Verbena.”

“Perfume? You smell perfume in here?”

Kid nodded and just as he looked up toward the loft, a tuft of dried hay fell between the cracks. “Heyes, there's somebody up there,” he whispered.

“Maybe good old Saint Nicholas and his reindeer have taken shelter from the storm.... It's probably just a raccoon or barn mice.”

“Wearing Lemon Verbena?” Kid whispered.

Drawing his gun, Kid moved slowly and quietly across the barn until his was standing under the loft so he could peer in between the cracks of the floor. “You'd best come down and make yourself known,” Kid called up to whoever was in the loft.

“I ain't sure field mice understand English,” Heyes said, but stopped before he was finished when a female voice was heard from the loft.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the woman demanded.

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Kid replied. “Now come on down here and lets get all this figured out.”

Moments later a gray wool skirt partially covered by a black wool coat was visible where the ladder reached the loft.

“It's alright Ma'am. We ain't gonna hurt you,” Heyes said in a reassuring voice.

Seeing the woman was unarmed and no threat, Kid holstered his gun and approached the ladder to assist her with the bottom two steps. Once on the solid floor of the barn, the woman nodded her appreciation but took a few cautionary steps back.

“Now, what are you doing here?” she asked.

“Why don't we start with introductions,” Heyes suggested. “My name's Joshua Smith and my friend here is Thaddeus Jones, and I'm guessing we're doing the same thing here as you are, getting some shelter, be as it may, from the storm. Now, tell us who you are.”

The woman, no more than twenty-five, had dark brown hair that days ago had been neatly twisted and pinned into a bun on the back of her head, but now had many straggled wisps that fell below her shoulders.

“My name is Anna Parker and I... I've been living here for the past ten days.”

“You've been out here for ten days all alone?” Kid asked. “How did you end up here?”

“A snow storm, same as you. My husband went hunting for food, but he hasn't returned.”

“How long ago?” Heyes asked.

“A week.”

Kid looked at Heyes, both knowing just how slim the chances were of her husband returning.

“You haven't eaten in a week?” Kid asked.

“I had food the first three days.”

“But none since?”

The woman shook her head.

“We'll get a fire going. We've got canned beans and dried beef, and coffee, too,” Heyes promised. “And if we're still stuck here tomorrow, my friend here will see if he can't hunt some meat.”

An hour later they were sitting around a warm fire, eating hot beans and coffee.

“Where were you and your husband headed?” Heyes asked.

“Salt Lake City. Jake's folks live there and we were going there for the holidays.”

“Why did he leave you without a horse and wagon?” Kid asked.

“We didn't have a wagon. We had a sleigh, and Jake said if he was to shoot a buck or a doe, he could load it onto the back to get it back here. He wasn't expecting to be gone more than a couple of hours.”

Kid nodded and glanced at his partner.

“I know what you're thinking,” Anna said defensively. “But he didn't run off and he ain't dead. I know Jake and, he might of run into trouble, but he'll be back.”

“Yes, Ma'am,” Kid replied.


Morning brought no promise of the storm easing as an icy sleet had begun during the night and layered a thin crust of ice over the fallen snow.

“We may haft start using some of the boards in the loft to keep the fire burning,” Heyes said over a breakfast of coffee and biscuits.

“If the two of you see to that, I'll see about hunting us some rabbit for supper,” Kid replied.

“It's Christmas Eve tonight,” Anna said, her voice wrought with worry. “There's no way Jake and me will reach Salt Lake City in time for Christmas.”

Kid pushed himself to his feet and wrapped the wool scarf around his face. “I ain't going very far so don't be alarmed if you hear gunshots,” he said for Anna's benefit.

By noon, Kid returned with two rabbits and a scrawny pine tree no more than two feet tall. “It ain't much of a Christmas tree, but all I had with me was my hunting knife and my pocket knife.”

“I found a rusty old saw up in the loft and was able to saw a few floorboards down to size for burning,” Heyes told him.

“Ma'am, if you'll skin these rabbits, I'll cut a few small pieces of wood to make a stand for the tree,” Kid told her.

By late afternoon they had two rabbits skewered and roasting on the fire and a rather pathetic looking pine tree wedged into a makeshift stand.

“I have a box of buttons and some thread in the loft. It won't be much, but I can thread the buttons and hang some on the tree for decoration,” Anna told them.

“I think I'll take some of these little pieces of wood over in the corner and whittle us some proper tinder,” Kid replied.

“I'll tend to the cooking,” Heyes added.


After a supper of roasted rabbit and coffee, Heyes headed to the horse stall and returned with his saddle bags. He sat back down and placed two small packages wrapped in brown paper under the now decorated tree.

“Opening presents tonight, uh?” Kid asked and pulled two small packages from his coat pocket. One package was wrapped in brown paper, while the other was wrapped in a clean bandanna.

Anna smiled sadly as she had no gifts to offer, but her smile brightened when she remembered something she had in the loft. “I'll be right back.”

She raced up the ladder and returned minutes later with something wrapped in a black stocking and she placed it under the tree.

“You first, Joshua,” Kid told him.

“Alright,” Heyes said and reached for his two packages. “For you, Thaddeus,” he said while handing Kid a package. “And one for you, Ma'am.”

Kid smiled when he opened his present. “How did you know I was running low on gun oil?”

“You're always running low on gun oil,” Heyes replied. “Now it's your turn, Ma'am.”

Anna carefully unwrapped the package and found it contained a small bag. She unfolded the bag and took a sniff of it's contents. “Peppermints!” she exclaimed. “How sweet.”

Heyes looked at Kid and winked. “I'll get you some for New Years,” he promised.

“And I'll share these right now,” Anna said and passed the bag to Kid.

“Now it's my turn,” Kid mumbled with a large peppermint in his mouth. He handed the paper wrapped present to Heyes and the bandanna wrapped present to Anna.

“Around the World in Eighty Days,” Heyes said, admiring the leather bound book. “Thank you.”

Anna carefully unwrapped the present and found a delicately carved hair comb.

“It's a little crude, Ma'am, but I didn't have much time,” Kid explained.

“That's why I smell gun oil,” Heyes stated.

“That's all I had to polish it up,” Kid explained.

“And here I thought my gift was leaking,” Heyes replied.

“It's beautiful. Thank you,” Anna told him. “And this if for the two of you,” she said and passed the black stocking to Heyes.

“Here Thaddeus, you can keep the wrapper,” Heyes said as he pulled out a small jar of home made honey and tossed the stocking to Kid.

Kid laughed but handed the stocking back to Anna. “For a couple of fellas with a sweet tooth, this is perfect,” Kid told her. “Thank you.”

“This is not the Christmas I had envisioned, but you've managed to make it memorable,” Anna told them.


Early Christmas morning, Kid stepped outside with the coffee pot in hand to pack the pot with snow for the making of coffee. As he stooped down to gather a handful of snow, something red flashed by behind the trees high up on the crest of the mountain.

“Joshua! Come out here!” Kid shouted.

Moments later both Heyes and Ann came rushing out of the barn. “What is it? What's wrong?” Heyes asked.

“I saw something red racing across the mountain. There!” he shouted, seeing the flash of red again.

“Maybe Saint Nick and his sleigh,” Heyes said teasingly. “Maybe he gave up trying to get through this storm.”

“I see it!” Ann exclaimed. “It does look like a sleigh!”

As the object reached an area barren of trees, they realized it was a sleigh they were seeing. “It has to be coming here. Oh, it has to be Jake!” Ann exclaimed.

“It's gonna take em at least another hour to reach us,” Kid told them. “Let's get some food and coffee ready. I s'pect he's cold and hungry.”


When the sleigh pulled up in front of the barn, Anna dashed out and jumped into Jake's arms. “I knew you'd be back! Are you alright?”

“Got caught in that first storm and after I started back, I got caught in the second one. I worried about you for food, but there wasn't nothing I could do,” Jake explained.

Seeing Kid and Heyes now standing in the doorway of the barn, Jake pushed Anna gently aside and took a defensive step back. “Who are you?' he demanded.

“Jake, it's alright. If it weren't for these two men, I might not have survived,” Anna said and, taking Jake's arm, led him up to the barn door. “Jake this is Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones.”

“Heard a lot about you Jake,” Heyes said and extended his hand.

“Like you, we got caught in the storm,” Kid added.”You wanna come inside? We've got hot beans and coffee.”

Inside, Jake first noticed the warm fire, then saw the scrawny little tree. “Merry Christmas,” he said to all.

“It is a Merry Christmas Jake, and the best present in the world is you showing up,” Anna told him as she wrapped an arm about his waist.

“I'm sorry we ain't gonna get to my folks in time for the holiday,” Jake told her.

“You still heading to Salt Lake City?” Heyes asked.

“Yeah, where are you headed?”

“San Francisco.”

“The pass is in good condition. It's narrow but the mountains shield it from most of the snow,” Jake told them.

“Well Ma'am, it looks like you won't be needing our help any more and our friend in San Francisco will be starting to worry, so I think we'd best be on our way,” Kid told them.

“I thank you for all you done. You made this a Christmas I won't never forget,” Anna told them.”

After getting their horses saddled and their gear packed, Heyes and Kid started on their way while Anna and Jake watched them until they were out of sight.


“Once we get through the pass we'll stop at the first town we come to for the night,” Heyes said as they continued on their way. “We'll wire Soapy so he won't worry.”

“Looking forward to a nice, warm bed and a hot meal,” Kid replied.

“And I'll replace those peppermints you didn't get.”

Kid smiled. “Maybe just get a couple of candy canes, Heyes. It is the holiday, after all.”

“Merry Christmas, Kid.”

“Merry Christmas, Heyes. It's one I won't likely forget neither.”