Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Western Christmas

After two weeks in the top 100 my Western Christmas book of short stories has tapered off. Hopefully, it will pick up again as we get closer to Christmas. I have always enjoyed Christmas and writing these stories was a stretch of my imagination. I do like the way it came out. My wife really likes it, has me continually signing copies so she can send them off as Christmas presents. I don’t mind the exposure to new readers, but am not making much money from this deal –  it is getting close to Christmas, so I really don’t mind.

See it or Order here

The book has stories set mostly in the old west, but there are also stories from modern times and some in between, like one from the 1950s. I really stretched myself with a fantasy western, to be read to kids, at the end of the book. All and all this one was fun to write and one that should be timeless as all westerns are.
Here is an excerpt from a story in the middle of the book.


Sleigh Bells Ring


And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,
Then let us all rejoice again!
On Christmas Day in the morning.
(Traditional anonymous)

Harding Fielder felt like better days must be coming because today was miserable. If he made it home every day, the rest of his life should be better than this one. Didn’t seem like such a big task three days ago when he started. He’d told Maude. “Four days, no longer, be back in four, easy,” and he believed it.
When he said four days, he knew he was pushing, but they agreed he needed to be home within four days, because it was the twentieth of December, if he left first thing the next morning he would be home on Christmas Eve. Back carrying Christmas presents, and that was important to him. The kids had no presents last year and he’d bought nothing for his wife in two years. If anyone ever deserved a present at Christmas it was Maude, she was a saint putting up with their struggles and never complaining. 
 Starting the ride home the cold hadn’t mattered, the ground was swept clean by the biting Wyoming wind and if he kept moving he could stay warm, almost. But three hours out of Fort Laramie the snow rode in from the west. A huge gray and black cloud obscured the sky, Harding knew, he had lived out here for years, this was bad. 
Four days ago he couldn’t believe his luck when the rider arrived with the note from Fort Laramie. Never a big rancher; some would say he wasn’t much of rancher at all, but he’d been building up the place. Then, two years ago, the bad winter came, his herd was growing again but the process was slow and money was short. Scouting for the troopers out of the fort paid some every year and now with the Indian troubles lessening, work was scarce. Scouting for the fort might be paying off now in a different way, they needed beef and he was close enough to supply the troops.
Looked to Harding like he wasn’t the only rancher having troubles, someone couldn’t fulfill their government contract and the fort was running low on meat. It was tough to give up on this much beef, he really only had seven steers ready to sell, but the army said they needed a dozen or fifteen head and would pay top dollar.          By mixing in a couple of young bulls and some old cows, he put together a nice mix of beef for the fort. The ranch was going to make a payment to him and the family this year.
Getting the small herd to the fort two days ago now looked like the easy part. He tried to look to his side, eyes avoiding the ice and snow coming out of the west in bucketful’s, wind driven and angry. Harding pulled his coat up higher and his hat down lower wasn’t likely the day would get any better. 
Everything had gone so well at the fort. Top dollar for his beef, even the older cows he sold to make numbers match what they needed. If they’d have included ol’ Moss in the sale, it would have been perfect. But there was a reason he called the cow ol’ Moss, she was old, how old, he had no idea, best guess around fifteen or so. She stood still most of the time and laid down more than most cows. Harding was sure she’d soon have moss growing on her for lack of movement. The old cow hadn’t had a calf since the kids were born, at least six years. He just never parted with her, first because she was a good cow that dropped good caves, made it through the blizzard and then she just got too darned old to sell. He hoped maybe the army was desperate. Took a half day extra with her in the bunch he drove to the fort. One look at the herd and the procurement officer said, “We’ll take um all, all but that old mossy back, top dollar for the rest.”
Harding turned his young gelding from west to north following the big bend in the North Platte. The strong west wind felt better to his side than it had in his face. For the first time today he believed he might make it. The past two hours, with every step, he supposed that he was going to freeze, not to be found until spring. About a half hour back, he daydreamed of giving up. But the bells calmed him, he might make it.
 The snow came harder, the Wyoming sage turning to a blank white canvas. But he could still hear the bells. A snap purchase, something he rarely did, but he’d bought the sleigh bells on an impulse. Went back into the Sutler’s store and paid another dollar for them. Then because it was the Christmas season, and he had nowhere else to put them, he’d tied them around ol’ Mossy’s neck. She looked pretty happy, had a new bounce in her step as she jingled along. The snow blinded him, the bells reassured him, at least he knew the old cow was still with him. 
Near as he could figure he was within three or four miles of home. On a good day, he was only an hour and a half out, even with the rough terrain. The snow made everything difficult, his judgment of how fast he was traveling was uncertain, but his horse plodded through deeper and deeper snow. The wind intensified and the cold was worse than anything he had encountered in his life. Even the great blizzard of two years ago was not this bad. But when that blizzard hit he was home, not on a high Platte River ridge trying to get there. He ached all over, his gelding stumbled, and Harding knew neither he nor the horse had much left. 
The bells were getting further and further away, the cow had wandered off. No need to go after her, she would make it home, starve or freeze out here, didn’t matter, not anymore. Then he remembered the bells, didn’t want to lose them. Against his better judgment, he turned toward the sound of the bells. It didn’t take long to find her, or to at least find the sound, a minute, maybe a minute and a half. The bells sounded close, he felt like he could reach out and touch the old cow. After the quick pursuit, Harding was no longer sure which way was north and he needed to go north. The wind had turned again, or he had ridden a circle. The stinging wind, full of giant snowflakes and tiny ice crystals came from his right, not his left. An east wind instead of west, east winds sometimes brought in storms, but he’d never seen one turn in a matter of one or two minutes, not during a storm.
The wind roared, the cold numbed him and the snow blinded him. Maybe a few more minutes, the horse stumbled again; neither had more than a few moments left. Harding used the only sense he had left and felt the saddle bags. Cans of peaches and two bolts of cloth, a bright blue and a pink with a pattern, the store clerk said that one was, “all the rage this year.”
The other saddlebag held candy, a fancy rag doll and a harmonica, presents for the kids. This was going to be the best Christmas ever, but now…
The ol’ mossy cow was going the wrong way, again. She’d turned, trying to walk away from the storm instead of into it. Wrong, Harding was sure of it, but he didn’t bet his life on it, he followed the bells. The snow seemed to let up, Harding thought he saw a star high in the sky, the same way Mossy was walking. Harding knew nothing of stars. He knew he was dying, freezing, despite the difficulties he smiled. Smiled as he died, smiled because he knew nothing of stars, directions, or senile old cows.



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