A bitterly cold, but soft winter’s night. A sheltering cave on the side of the mountain. A warming fire and a roasting rabbit. It was a strangely peaceful night on the trail. We would be off in the morning, heading for Lom’s cabin just outside of Porterville. He had invited us to spend Christmas at the cabin. I think he has been feeling bad about the length of time it’s been taking with the amnesty. People in town know us as Smith and Jones so it’s a safe place to be, even so we don’t plan on going into town often. Staying in the cabin, sleeping on a bed, have an actual cooked meal will be just fine. Good for Kid to get some rest too.
We had just finished a job for Silky. I wasn’t sure we would hear from him again after the grandma episode, but he needed a package delivered to an old friend. We had told him could always contact us through Lom. Picked up the package from the stage and delivered it. I was surprised to find an envelope with my name on it. Figured Silky would just feel we owed him this one, but there was a nice payment enclosed so we were fine in the money area, and all was good and calm.
"How you are doing, Kid?"
"Fine, just tired"
While we were delivering the package the Kid had suffered through what seemed to be his every year thing around this time- the fever, the chills, the loss of appetite and the tiredness. Now he was just tired.
"Good. We’ll eat and sleep and be on the way early. When we get to Lom’s an actual bed should help you get rid of the tiredness."
"Hope so." Looks like the rabbit’s done, ready to eat?"
So, we settled in for supper.
"Kid, I’ve been thinking about Christmas."
"Yea, what about it?"
"Just the kinds of Christmases we’ve had."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, there were the Christmases at the orphanage. I hated them. We didn’t really celebrate on the actual day. Two or three days before Christmas we were paraded before the "good folks" of the town so they could be charitable and give us an orange and a new shirt or hat."
"Being a little hard there Heyes. I think most of those folks felt they were doing something nice."
"Yea, maybe but I always felt kinda angry. They got to go home and celebrate, and we got to spend the day as if it was it was any other day, told we had already had our Christmas."
"Yea, I remember."
Kid was sounding tired, and I didn’t want to keep him up, but I still had more to say.
"Then when we separated for that time, I don’t think I noted Christmas at all. Can’t remember anything special around Christmas and those two years."
"Same here, I think once I was in a town where there was a Christmas dance but that’s as close as I got to any kind of celebration."
"Devil’s Hole…Christmas there was a celebration but mostly drinking and poker – nothing with a Christmas feeling."
"Yea. What’s going on Heyes? What’s all this about Christmas?
I was still tired and not getting why Heyes was going on about Christmas. He was right – Christmas was always hit and miss for us except for Christmas at…. Christmas was always hit and miss for us.
"Don’t know Kid. Just thinking."
I sighed heavily. We rarely go there but it seems that Heyes needed to and maybe he was hesitating cuz I never want to go there. After all this time, the pain is the same if not worse but….."
"Heyes, the happiest Christmases were at home with our families."
"Yea, I know Kid, just didn’t want to bring it up…"
"It’s okay. What’s your best memory?"
"All of it. Going with our Pa’s to look for and watch them cut down the tree, waiting to see how big the turkeys they caught were, popping the corn for the tree garland, Midnight Mass, even though we usually fell asleep, getting the orange and a surprise gift in the morning, all of it, all of it."
Going back there…too hard…but Heyes seemed to need something tonight. He is always looking out for me even when I don’t need it. Well, even when I don’t think I need it. Habit I guess, been his burden in a way since that night so long ago…..
"Well, Heyes, my best memory is that the animals can speak at midnight"
"What? What are you talking about?"
"You remember Heyes. Grandpa Curry told us. At midnight at Christmas, the animals can talk."
"The animals can talk!? No wait, yea, I remember that story."
Heyes had this superior - so cute that anyone would believe this story look on his face.
"Hey! Grandpa told us!!"
"Kid, don’t you think that might have been a story?"
"No, I don’t cuz I was in the barn on Christmas Eve, and I heard Bessie say Hi to Grampa…"
"What? Come on Kid…"
Well, I had promised Grandpa that this would only been between the two of us, our secret, but I was thinking now that he said that to make it special for me and he would be okay with me telling Han…Heyes,
"Okay, you remember Grandpa telling us that cuz the animals were in the stall when Jesus was born at midnight, they were given the ability to speak at midnight?"
"Yep, I remember that story."
"You keep calling it a story Heyes"
"It is a story Kid."
"Well, let me tell you a story Han…Heyes."
"I was 8 the year before…I was 8. I had the croup and Ma was going to stay home from Midnight mass – Grandpa knew how much she loved Midnight Mass so he said he would stay with me and go to church on Christmas Day. Grandpa was taking care of me, but I was really feeling okay. I remember the whole conversation like it was yesterday...."
"Grandpa, remember you told us that the animals can talk at midnight at Christmas"?
"I do mo cheann beag, I do. "
Grandpa sometimes talked in what Ma called the old language, but it had a nice sound to it, and I always knew when he talked that way he wanted us to remember his past.
"Well can we go to the barn at midnight and talk with Bessie?"
"We can, little one, we can."
"So about almost midnight Grandpa woke me up, yea, I had fallen asleep, but he woke me up and took me to the barn. He sat me on a bale of hay and told me to wait and listen. I was about to fall asleep again when I heard something, something like – 'Merry Christmas Bessie, Merry Christmas Sean'- so Bessie talked and from what I felt, it wasn’t the first time she talked with Grandpa. After that I remember Grandpa carrying me back to bed. He said this was our secret- don’t think he wanted Ma to know he had taken me out of bed- so that’s why I never told you. That’s my favorite Christmas memory. Never told you cuz of the promise."
"Oh, that’s fine. A promise to Grandpa Curry is a binding promise"
I didn’t tell Kid that Grandpa had me promise not to tell when I caught him with the corn pipe on the porch…Grandma Curry did not like the smoking.
"That’s a great Christmas memory Kid . Grandpa would be okay with that after all these years. Guess we should get some sleep and get on the road early tomorrow to make another memory.
"Heyes, how about we give each other our gifts now?"
"Okay with me Kid."
Kid gave me the Twain book "Old Times on the Mississippi" and I gave him all the things you need to keep a gun in working order along with a good supply of peppermints.
"Merry Christmas Jed."
"Merry Christmas Han."
** The Gaelic translates to "my little one" and I need to acknowledge my beta Kathy Knudsen who made this a better story.