My Christmas Story
by Steve Hockensmith
Art by Mark Evans
Smythe & Associates Publishing, Ltd.
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York
Dear Mr. Smythe:
Season’s greetings to you, Mrs. Smythe, and all the little Smythelings! I hope my stories have helped you put a few extra presents on the tree for them. All my brother and I could afford to exchange last year were pats on the back and an extra helping of beans for our “feast,” so the money you’ve sent my way for my stories will make Christmas 1893 a merrier one indeed.
Thank you also for sending along the latest Smythe’s Frontier Detective. (And what a pleasure it is, I must say, to finally have a permanent address it could be sent to.) The issue was a real ripsnorter, as usual, and it was a thrill to see me and Old Red—or at least the rather, shall we say, embellished versions of us your illustrators favor—gracing the cover once again. You might want to remind said illustrators, however, that my brother is neither nine feet tall nor as strapping as a stevedore. Quite the opposite, in fact. I appreciate, however, that they have, by way of compensation, made me twelve feet tall and as musclebound as Samson before he saw the barber. Our cowboy attire remains as colorful as ever, I see, but at least this month the red-and-white Stetsons, vests, and boots make us look like a pair of Santa’s less-heralded helpers. His reindeer wranglers, perhaps?
I read your accompanying note about next year’s Christmas annual with the utmost interest. I reckoned I couldn’t help you out with a story, though, as Old Red and I tend to have the kind of yuletide that’s memorable less for cheer and miracles than deprivation and boredom. We haven’t had a family to celebrate with in six years, and in that time our Christmases have been spent (one might say endured) pinching our few remaining pennies as fiercely as Ebenezer Scrooge so that we wouldn’t starve before the spring roundups. Fond as they might be of my brother and me, your readers probably wouldn’t derive much holiday merriment from “A Grub-Line Drifter Christmas” or “The Miracle of the Abandoned Shack” (the miracle being that we found it before we froze to death).
Fate, however, stepped in yesterday to supply the very holiday tale you sought—which is why this is shaping up to be a twenty-page letter rather than a Currier and Ives card. I don’t know if my Christmas story will bring much (in the words of the old song) joy to the world. But . . . well, you asked for it.
As you know, Old Red and I moved to Ogden, Utah, last month in order to establish a private investigation firm with our new partners, Colonel C. Kermit Crowe and his daughter Diana. It’s been slow going. The Double-A Western Detective Agency has a name and an office and not much else. There are, as yet, no clients, no cases, no work. Colonel Crowe has been getting the word out to his old contacts with the government, railroads, express companies, and cattlemen’s associations, but so far this has netted us many best wishes for success and not a single contract.
The resulting hours of idleness have been as much blessing as burden for me, as I’ve been able to spend many of them in the company of the lovely Miss Crowe. She’s provided invaluable assistance as I set up housekeeping for my brother and myself, and I’ve made the most of her generosity and womanly wisdom. (By “made the most” I mean I’ve milked it for all it’s worth. I recently dragged Miss Crowe to no less than four department stores in search of the perfect bed warmer, and at the end of the day I convinced her that we still hadn’t seen a decent one and would have to try again the next morning. After sharing breakfast at a restaurant I wanted to try with her, of course. Sometimes I amaze even myself. . . .)
My brother, meanwhile, descended into such a mood as to make the aforementioned Scrooge look positively jolly. You might think having a warm, snug winter for once would slip a smile beneath his big nose, but no. A permanent frown resided there instead.
The first problem was tedium. “My mind rebels at stagnation!” he’d say, quoting his hero, Sherlock Holmes. “Give me work!”
The second problem was “The Final Problem.” Or “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” to be more exact. (I’ll admit that I’m not always thrilled with the new titles you give my stories. “The Black Dove” I find evocative and mysterious, for instance, while “Range Rider Dicks Smash the Chinatown Terror!” is . . . let’s just say less so. But I appreciate that you don’t feel the need to stick “The Adventure of” in front of everything, as Dr. Watson’s publishers have taken to doing. It seems so obligatory I wouldn’t be surprised were it to extend to everything the doctor puts to paper: Should I receive a Christmas card from the man I’d expect the inscription to read “The Adventure of the Season’s Greetings!”)
Old Red and I knew that “The Adventure of the Final Problem” was coming and the gist of the tale it told, of course, but that didn’t lessen the impact on my brother when we got our hands on the December McClure’s and learned at long last the particulars of Mr. Holmes’s passing. When I was done reading out the story, my brother muttered Doc Watson’s own words—“the best and wisest man whom I have ever known”—before adding a few of his own.
“So . . . no more Holmes stories for now.”
Old Red pointed at the magazine spread out on my lap. “We’ve seen the like before. Just cuz someone says a feller’s dead don’t make it so.”
“John Watson ain’t just any someone,” I said. “And Sherlock Holmes, amazing as he might have been, wasn’t Jesus Christ. Leave the miracles to the carols, Brother.”
This, I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn, earned me a glare hot enough to cook a Christmas goose. Old Red stomped from the boarding-house parlor room in which we’d been sitting, threw on his coat, plopped his white Boss of the Plains upon his head, and left me alone by the fire to stew in regret. Here we were at the holidays, missing more keenly than ever our Mutter and Vater and sisters and brother and all the other dead Amlingmeyers we’d never see again. And when my brother held out hope that a friend, of sorts, might somehow return to us from the void that had swallowed our family, I’d told him to “leave the miracles to the carols.”
I felt unworthy of so much as a lump of coal. If Santa filled my stocking with anything after that, it would be the gift that horses bestow so freely upon the streets of every city.
I didn’t see Old Red again until the next morning, when he came down for breakfast with the other boarders looking as ireful as when he’d stormed out of the house. Our elderly landlady, Miss Derringer, has already learned not to turn to my brother for mealtime pleasantries—or pleasantries of any kind at any time—and has made more than one caustic comment about his less-than-elegant taste in attire. (He doesn’t have to slap brands on strays anymore, but he still dresses like he might be asked to any second.) So she tends to direct her conversational gambits my way instead, as she did this particular morning.
“USUALLY I’D HAVE A TREE IN THE PARLOR BY NOW!” she boomed at me as I took a seat beside Old Red, who’d positioned himself as far from Miss Derringer as possible.
The other boarders gathered around the table—all of them railroad middlemen of one stripe or another—jumped.
Miss Derringer leaned toward me expectantly, coffee cup in one withered hand, ear trumpet in the other.
“OH?” I replied.
“WHY, YES! BUT ANNIE TELLS ME THERE’S NOT A PINE, FIR, OR SPRUCE TO BE FOUND IN TOWN!”
“OH?” I said again. I turned to Annie, Miss Derringer’s maid, who was bringing a plate of fried potatoes in from the kitchen.
“That’s right,” Annie said. “Every one within a dozen miles has already been—”
“DON’T MUMBLE, WOMAN!” Miss Derringer snapped.
Annie stifled a sigh and put the plate oƒn the table.
“EVERY ONE WITHIN A DOZEN MILES HAS ALREADY BEEN CHOPPED DOWN AND SOLD OFF!” she shouted. “THE LAST ONES WERE SELLING FOR TEN DOLLARS EACH!”
“SHAMEFUL!” Miss Derringer pro-claimed.
Most of us at the table knew to nod in agreement even as we began piling potatoes and ham and scrambled eggs on our plates. But one of the newer additions to the household shrugged and said, “Supply and demand.”
“WHAT WAS THAT?” Miss Derringer demanded, slamming down her coffee cup and shooting a glare at the heretic. “SPEAK UP, YOUNG MAN!”
“I SAID IT’S SIMPLY A MATTER OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND!” replied the “young man” (who was portly, balding, and well north of forty).
Miss Derringer aimed her ear trumpet at him like it was the muzzle of a musket.
“AND WHAT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?”
“HE MEANS IT’S JUST BUSINESS, MA’AM!” I translated. I threw in “AS HE SEES IT” to keep myself out of the line of fire.
Miss Derringer scowled at the “young man.” If her ear trumpet had been loaded she would have pulled the trigger.
“CHRISTMAS TREES AREN’T ‘JUST BUSINESS’!” she said. “THEY ARE A TRADITION—ONE ANY GOOD CHRISTIAN SHOULD BE ABLE TO PARTAKE IN WITHOUT BEING GOUGED BY AVARICIOUS OPPORTUNISTS!”
“HEAR, HEAR!” I said as I sawed away at a slice of ham.
“Kiss-ass,” Old Red muttered.
“Yes, of course, you’re right,” said the gent who’d set our landlady off, his pudgy face blushing bright red.
“E-NUN-CI-ATE!” Miss Derringer barked at him, banging a little fist on the table with each syllable.
“YES! OF COURSE! YOU’RE RIGHT!” the man repeated.
He attempted to remove himself from the conversation by becoming utterly absorbed in his work: the prodigious over-buttering of a biscuit. Another boarder—an old veteran of the breakfast battles that could erupt if one said the wrong thing—stepped in to give his comrade cover as he made his escape.
“BELIEVE ME, MISS DERRINGER, THE UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD AGREES WITH YOU WHOLEHEARTEDLY!” he said. “ARRANGEMENTS HAVE BEEN MADE FOR A CHRISTMAS SPECIAL THAT WILL BRING DOZENS OF TREES TO OGDEN ANY DAY NOW!”
“WHEN?” Miss Derringer said.
The railroad man cleared his throat.
“ANY! DAY! NOW!” he roared.
My brother winced with every word.
“Like trying to eat in a damn lumber mill,” he sighed.
“I HEARD YOU, MR. TURNBULL! THERE’S NO NEED TO BELLOW!” Miss Derringer blared back at the railroader. “I WANT TO KNOW WHEN ‘ANY DAY NOW’ IS!”
Mr. Turnbull looked like he profoundly regretted entering the fray.
“WHEN THE BOXCAR IN FARMINGTON IS FULL!” he replied.
“OH HO! MEANING DECENT PEOPLE HAVE TO WAIT FOR HEAVEN KNOWS HOW LONG SO THAT THE UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD CAN MAKE MAXIMUM PRO- FIT WHEN IT FINALLY DEIGNS TO LET THEM HONOR A PRECIOUS CHRISTIAN HOLY DAY!”
Miss Derringer returned her glare to the “young man,” who looked like he wanted to finish his meal beneath the table.
“‘SUPPLY AND DEMAND’!” she spat. “EXTORTION IS WHAT IT IS!”
“FEAR NOT, MA’AM!” I said. “AFTER TODAY YOU SHALL BE TREELESS NO LONGER, AND YOU WILL NOT HAVE THE UNION PACIFIC OR ANY OTHER CAPITALIST TO THANK FOR IT!”
Miss Derringer sat back and widened her eyes. “OH? AND WHO WILL I HAVE TO THANK?”
“MY BROTHER!” I said.
Old Red froze, a forkful of fried potato halfway to his opened mouth.
“HE JUST VOLUNTEERED TO RIDE OUT AND FIND YOU THE MOST BEAUTFUL CHRISTMAS TREE YOU’VE EVER SEEN,” I went on. “‘YOU SUPPLY THE AXE, I’LL SUPPLY THE PINE,’ HE SAID.”
My brother put down his fork and swiveled in his seat to scowl at me.
“YOU’LL HAVE TO FORGIVE ME FOR SPEAKING UP ON HIS BEHALF, MA’AM!” I said. “YOU KNOW HIS VOICE DOESN’T CARRY!”
Miss Derringer favored Old Red with a small smile.
“YOU ARE A TRUE GENTLEMAN, MR. AMLINGMEYER!” she said. She looked him up and down, her smile stiffening. “DESPITE APPEARANCES!”
After that, we were able to eat in peace—though I knew I’d be paying a price for it.
“You big-mouthed, fat-headed idjit!” Old Red raged at me in the parlor a little later.
The other boarders had dispersed to their railroading, while Miss Derringer was out taking her morning constitutional (which consisted of being pushed around the block by her manservant Claypool whilst seated in a wicker wheelchair).
“Now, now, Brother . . . where’s your Christmas spirit?” I said.
“I ain’t got none! Not if it means freezing my ass off trying to find some grumpy old maid a shrub!”
I shook my head and clucked my tongue. “Such an un-Christian sentiment. What would Mutter say?”
At the mention of our mother, Old Red clamped his mouth shut and spun away to face the fireplace. I’d said the wrong thing again—poked at the wound in danger of opening up every year around this time.
“Look at it this way,” I went on quickly, trying to bury my mistake under a heap of words. “You yourself have been grousin’ about bein’ bored. ‘My mind rebels at stagnation!’ Well, here’s something useful to do. Plus, it’d give us the chance to try one of the local liveries and get some ridin’ in. And we oughta get the lay of the land hereabouts, don’t ya think? Ogden’s our HQ now. We need to learn what we can about it before the sleuthin’ work starts comin’ in. Why, it’s all clay for bricks, to put it as Mr. Holmes might. Data—and a foundation for the Double-A Western Detective Agency.”
My brother snorted and kept his back to me. But after a moment passed with no sound but the crackling of the fire, he spoke.
“So you wasn’t just tryin’ to push this tree thing onto me? You’d be comin’ too?”
“Of course, I would! And I’ll let you in on a little secret, Brother: It’ll be fun.”
“Well . . . I reckon there’s no gettin’ out of it,” Old Red grumbled. But when he turned toward me again, I do believe there was actually a smile hiding behind his bushy red moustache.
An hour later, we were riding out of town, my brother on a rented pinto, me on a sturdy chestnut Morgan. Behind me, rolled up in a blanket, was an axe brought to us by Miss Derringer’s man Claypool.
It was a day so perfectly Christmasy it could tempt Dickens to rise from the grave and reach for a pen. The air was crisp and cold, but there was no wind to bite through one’s coat, and though the snow was heavy for a time it soon slowed to a lazy dusting of fat, fluffy flakes that drifted down on us like powdered sugar sprinkled over a batch of fresh-baked spice cookies.
We ambled south beside the ice-crusted Weber River and the railroad tracks along it, aiming to swing away and leave both behind once we were far enough from the city limits to give us a shot at spotting a suitable Tannenbaum. The trees we passed were beautiful, but—being exclusively box elders, cottonwoods, and bigtooth maples—couldn’t have been accommodated indoors by a parlor room any smaller than the Mormon Tabernacle. All that remained of whatever young pines or firs had been in the vicinity was the occasional sad little sawed-off stump jutting up out of the snow.
About two miles south of Ogden, river and railroad curve to the east, and Old Red and I began searching for a spot to ford and begin our tree hunt in earnest in the flat grassland in the opposite direction. Our competitors had already picked clean the city outskirts and mountain foothills behind us, our logic went, so these two young men were heeding Horace Greeley: We would go west.
Now, the Weber is more creek than river around Ogden, but none of us (I’m including the horses) was anxious to get wet on such a day. A little splashing we could handle. A good soaking would turn us into icicles. So as we moseyed over the rocks and frozen mud along the bank we kept our eyes on the water, looking for broad, flat shallows where the crossing would be easy. Despite the blow of reading of Holmes’s death the day before, my brother seemed to be enjoying the ride—he hadn’t cut loose with a single sigh, grumble, or snide aside since we’d mounted—so I did the one thing I could to preserve this rare good mood as long as possible. I kept my mouth shut.
We were about forty yards from a particularly sharp bend of the river when Old Red suddenly sat up straight in his saddle . . .
Copyright © 2018. My Christmas Story by Steve Hockensmith