“Now how many times have I told you boys that you can’t keep getting’ drunk and tearin’ up the saloon.” Marshal Jack Craddock had two men by the back of their shirt collars holding them upright as both men were almost too drunk to stand up by their selves. John and Tom Kruger had been at it again. They had gotten drunk and decided to redecorate the Christmas tree in the saloon.
“Weee-ee didn’t mean no harm, Mars-ss-ss-al,” sputtered one of the men. Both of the part-time cowboys, and sometimes miners were in their early twenties, had long, greasy, brown hair that needed cutting after it had been washed. Both had pale blue eyes, hadn’t shaved in about a week, and were on the slightly plump side. Their clothes weren’t clean but not as dirty as some of the men that came into the community of Bordertown. It was easy to see that they were related to each other.
“This is the third time, Marshal. The third time that they have knocked over my Christmas tree and tore down the garland on the staircase,” complained Diane in a high pitched screech. “I can’t take it any more.” She waved her hands in the air at the tree lying on the floor with its decorations scattered around it. “I would like the decorations to last at least through the party tomorrow evening. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.” It looked as if the pretty black woman was about to cry.
A tall white man with thinning hair put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and tried to calm her. “Now, now, Diane. Don’t you worry. The Marshal is gonna escort these two scoundrels out and they ain’t gonna come back in here at all. Are they, Marshal.” Zack Denny looked at the Marshal meaningfully. He was tired of having to help his wife put up the tree and decorations time after time and had already complained to the lawman about the troublemakers. He was the mayor of Bordertown and expected that the Marshal, whom he considered a friend, would keep the hooligans out of his saloon at least until after Christmas when he could get Diane to take down all the doodads.
“All right, all right. I’ll throw them out a town,” said the Marshal to Zack and Diane. He pulled the two men out the door of the saloon and onto the boardwalk. “You men got two choices. You can spend some time in jail or you can get your horses and get out a town and don’t come back.”
The cold air was starting to sober up the men. “Marshal, its winter time and cold. We ain’t got no place to stay.”
“Well, don’t you have a job somewhere?” asked the Marshal. “You sure seem to have enough money to keep gettin’ drunk.”
“We – we – ahhh. We quite our job. We saved all our pay from this summer and planned to spend the winter here in town,” muttered John Kruger.
“Well, find some other town to spend the winter in,” said the Marshal. “We done had enough of your shanagans here in Bordertown.” He gave the men a push off the boardwalk. “Get your horses and get. I see you again I’ll throw you in jail for the winter. And you can cut wood for the town.”
John and Tom looked at each other and shrugged. Cutting wood for the town sounded like way to much work for them. Especially doing it for free. They walked off toward the south end of town where there was a stable that let people keep their horses in a pasture for a smaller amount than the charge for keeping them in the barn.
The wind blow a hard gust down the narrow street trying to snatch off the Marshal’s hat. He pulled it on tighter. He looked at the sky, covered by low-hanging, dark gray clouds that moved this way and that trying to decide if they were going to stay or drift on to another territory. Jack wished they would move on like the Krugers. He knew they were overdue for a big storm. So far this fall and the first part of winter they had been lucky by not having any bad weather. It looked like that luck was about to change. There was a rumble of thunder followed by another gust of wind as rain started to pour out of the sky. Jack pulled his coat tight against the cold damp air. Might snow, he thought to himself, if it gets colder it sure will snow. It would be a heck of a Christmas present for Bordertown if this rain became a snowstorm or even worse a blizzard.
Craddock turned and re-entered the saloon. He walked over to the bar and propped his booted foot on the rail around the bottom. “I’ll take a cup of coffee, Zack.”
“Sure thing, Marshal,” said Zack Denny as he poured the cup of coffee and set it in front of Craddock. “Sure appreciate you gettin’ those two out a here. Diane was about ready to take a shotgun to them. She sure is upset about all the Christmas decorations bein’ tore up by them.”
“You know where them two is from?” asked Jack.
“Can’t say I do. First time I seen ‘em was a week or so ago when the came in and got drunk that first time. Seems like they said they were workin’ for a cow outfit over south a here. Can’t remember if they said which one.”
“Well, I figure they’ll drift on somewhere’s else,” muttered the Marshal. He sure hoped they would. As much as it would be nice to have a couple of guys splitting wood for the town he didn’t look forward to any particular person staying in the jail for any length of time.
Both men looked up as the saloon doors opened letting in a blast of cold air from outside. The Canadian Mounted Policeman stationed in Bordertown was Corporal Clive Bennett and he let Dr. Marie Dumont enter in front of him. The Corporal and the woman doctor crossed the room and seated themselves at one of the three tables at the back of the saloon reserved for customers that wanted a meal. Diane Denny had seen them and came from the back to take their order for lunch.
“Would you like to join us, Jack?” asked Marie.
The Marshal walked to the table and took a seat beside of the attractive blonde woman. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said grinning at the Mountie who was frowning at him. The two men were constantly vying for Marie’s attention. So far she had always treated them as good friends and never anything more even though both men would have preferred if she had taken them up on the offers of marriage that both had made several months ago. She had refused to marry either of them but both of them seemed to still be hoping she might change her mind. But they also were more than willing to just be friends if that was what she wanted.
“Are you planning on being at the Christmas party tomorrow evening?” asked Diane as she sat three bowls of stew on the table and then added a plate of fresh baked bread.
“I wouldn’t miss it, Diane,” said Jack as he took a piece of the bread and broke it into small pieces in his stew. “And I’m lookin’ forward to all them cakes, and cookies, and pies that all you women are bakin’.”
“There’ll be lots to eat,” said Diane as she wiped her hands on her apron. She had gone to a lot of work to plan the party for the whole town to attend. Her husband, Zack, wasn’t complaining about having the party in the saloon. The food would be free but the partygoers would still have to pay for beer or whiskey. “Turkey, ham, potatoes, corn, beans, and some other stuff besides the sweets. And Sally has agreed to sing some Christmas carols if Corporal Bennett will play them on the piano.” She looked at the Mountie with a wishful grin.
Clive knew there was no way he would get out of playing for the party even if he wasn’t very good and the piano was out of turn. “Sure, Diane, I’ll be glad to. But only if we do some songs where everyone gets to sing. It wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t all sing Jingle Bells and some of the other songs.” He looked over at the Marshal. “Except for a few of us who can’t carry a tune at all.”
“Don’t worry, Clive, I won’t ruin your party by tryin’ to sing. I know I can’t.”
“It’s Christmas, Jack. Everyone can sing that wants to.” Marie glared at Clive.
“Not me, Marie. I know when I can’t do somethin’ right and I don’t even try.” Jack tucked a napkin into his shirt collar and started eating his stew.
Carrying an armload of firewood Bennett entered the office that he and the US Marshal shared. Trying to make as much noise as possible he dropped the wood in the large wooden box sitting under the window at the front of the office. He opened the door on the potbellied wood stove that sat between the wood box and the Marshal’s desk and added a few pieces of wood to the stove making sure to slam the door shut.
Jack Craddock sat in his chair with his feet propped on his desk, boots off, and snored as he slept. He never even cracked an eyelid at the noise that Clive was purposely making.
“Jack,” said the Mountie as he sat down at his own desk to the north side of the office. “Jack, are you awake?”
“Nope,” answered the Marshal.
“You get your Christmas shopping done? You know that tomorrow night is Christmas Eve, don’t you? You are going to look a bit foolish if you don’t have a gift for Willie, Lucy, and Marie.”
Jack didn’t answer or even act as if he had heard his friend.
“All right. But don’t forget that I warned you.” Clive couldn’t understand why the Marshal insisted in putting off his Christmas shopping until the last minute each year. He was sure that it wouldn’t do any good to keep reminding Jack that Christmas was almost here. Last year he had reminded the Marshal several times and still at the last minute the insufferable man had persuaded him to help find a few presents for the people that Jack felt he just had to give a gift to. Clive had been the one that had felt foolish as they had rushed from this store to that store just as they were closing. And he promised himself that he wouldn’t let Jack talk him into doing it again this year even if the impractical man didn’t get gifts for his friends. He didn’t care about himself but he knew that Marie and especially Willie as well as Lucy would be disappointed if Jack didn’t give them something, even if it wasn’t much. With a shake of his head Clive opened a ledger and began making notations in it.
Minutes later the Marshals feet hit the floor with a thud. He pulled on his boots and stood up. “Well, I guess I should go do my rounds since it’s gettin’ on towards evenin’. Want to make sure that those two Kruger brothers didn’t go back to Denny’s Saloon and cause any more trouble.” Jack pulled on his heavy coat, and his hat. He opened the door and as he did so he looked back at his friend. “Clive, this here line down the center of the office is getting’ a bit faded. ‘Bout time you repainted it again, ain’t it?” Without waiting for an answer he went out closing the door behind him. The red line down the center of the office had been painted by Clive a few years ago when he had been trying to convince Jack that they should each clean up their own side instead of Clive doing it all.
Clive looked at the faded red line in disgust, waded up a piece of paper and threw it across the room.
Jack smiled to himself as he walked around and sometimes through the puddles of water left over from the cold rain that had fallen earlier that day. He wasn’t about to tell Clive that he had done his Christmas shopping early. Very early. A month ago when he had to go to Fort Benton and bought as much as he could afford. For Lucy, Marie’s ward who was sixteen years old, a very pretty, colorful wool scarf. Similar scarves for Sally and Diane. For Marie he had splurged on a warm, woolen shawl that had a headscarf built into it to help keep her head warm and dry when she was out going to see her patients that needed doctoring. For Willie, the teenage boy that he thought so much of and helped care for he bought a new Barlow pocket knife. He had bought one of the knives for Clive, too. For Zack Denny and his chef, Dom, and Sally’s boyfriend, the town banker, Wendell, and Liam, the barber, he had bought cowboy style bandanas. At the last moment he had bought a bandana for Clive and Willie to go with the knives. He had wrapped the gifts in the first printed gift-wrap paper he had ever seen. He grinned at the thought of the pretty, young clerk that had talked him into getting the fancy new wrapping paper along with some red ribbon for tying them with. She sure had been helpful. He hoped his friends liked the gifts he had bought for them. He would be disappointed if they didn’t.
He slogged on around the town checking to make sure that doors that should be closed and locked at this hour were locked. He stopping to talk with Wendell as the banker locked up the bank and to Liam, who owned the barbershop, next door to the bank. He ended up at the saloon where he knew a cup of coffee would be waiting for him. He was glad that Zack didn’t ever charge him for the coffee he drank as it would have taken most of his pay check to pay for the amount he drank but he and Zack considered it part of his pay for taking care of the town. Craddock was a US Marshal and since the tiny town of Bordertown couldn’t afford to hire a town marshal the town was more than glad to let Jack take over the duties with a little compensation here and there, like a cup of coffee, or a bowl of stew now and then, plus a place to stable his horses.
“Evenin’, Marshal,” said Dom as the lawman walked up to the bar. “Coffee?”
“Yeah, Dom. Make sure it’s good and hot. It’s so cold out there I swear that the next time it rains it’ll turn to ice before it hits the ground.”
“Old Man Stower said that it’s gonna snow tomorrow.”
“He sure might be right.” Jack took a sip of the hot brew that the bartender had set in front of him. “Thanks, Dom.” He took off his gloves so he could hold the cup better while warming his fingers. “Have those Kruger brothers been around any more?”
“I haven’t seen them and I’m sure Zack would a said something if they had been. You want some soup?”
Jack nodded his head in agreement, then turned so he could get a good view of the room. He looked around to see if there was any customers creating problems but didn’t see any cause for alarm. Moments later Dom set a bowl of hot bean soup on the bar. “Here you go, Marshal.”
The door opened letting in a gust of cold air and Corporal Bennett entered the saloon. He saw Jack and went to where he had sat at a table to eat. Clive pulled off his gloves and thumped them on the table by Jack before pulling out a chair to sit.
The two friends sat and ate in silence. When they were finished the continued to sit there and watch the people in the saloon. Some were cowboys, others were farmers. There were some from the railroad. Most of the customers were men but there were a few women, too. Zack had hired two girls to help with the serving but there were always a few women hanging around caging drinks even though Zack didn’t like it. There was a woman gambler and a few of the ranchers, farmers, and towns people would bring there wives with them when they came for a meal. The Denny’s encouraged the wives to come as they liked to try and consider the saloon almost a family business. Seldom were there any children there, but there would be for the Christmas party tomorrow evening.
The railroad was getting closer and closer to the town. Both lawmen would be glad when it did as it would mean that a telegraph line would also be built and that would mean better communication with the rest of the world. But it would also mean more problems. Already there were more and more people moving to the small town. There were more tent business, most of them on the south end of town which was the American side since it was part of Montana Territory. Marshal Craddock was worried about the fact that he really could use some help in the way of a deputy. So far his inquires hadn’t resulted in much. Neither the town, nor the Federal government seemed ready to put out the money to pay for a deputy. He knew that Bennett had already checked into getting more help from his head office.
The back door to the saloon slowly opened and a boy of about fifteen slipped in. He looked back and motioned to someone behind him and a girl about his age came in. She seemed apprehensive about being there as she glanced around and looked as if she were ready to run back out. The boy took her hand and led her to the table where the two lawman sat.
“Willie, what are you doin’ in here?” asked the Marshal. “And you shouldn’t be bringin’ Lucy with you.”
“You kids shouldn’t be in here,” added the Mountie.
“Ahhhh – why not. Some of the other kids come in here,” said Willie. Lucy didn’t say a word just sat holding Willie’s hand.
“Lucy, you keep squeezing Willie’s hand like that you’ll squeeze it off,” commented Jack.
Both kids looked embarrassed but Willie continued to hold onto Lucy’s hand. “It’s snowin’,” said the boy trying to change the subject. “Snowin’ pretty hard.”
Jack let his face show surprise at the announcement. “Oh. I didn’t think it usually snowed ‘till almost Christmas.”
“It is almost Christmas,” said Lucy. “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”
Again Jack looked surprised. “It is?”
Willie grinned. “Ahhhh – quite tryin’ to josh us, Marshal. You know it’s almost Christmas.”
Jack laughed. “Yeah, I know. And there’s to be a big party here tomorrow. And you kids are all excited, waitin’ for the party and to see what Santy Claus is gonna bring you.”
“Marshal you know me and Lucy is to big to believe in Santa Claus,” stated Willie.
“Are you really, Willie?” asked Clive. “I think there are lots of people a lot older than you that still believe in Santa Claus.”
“Who?” asked Lucy.
The Mountie looked as if he was thinking real hard. “Well,” he snapped his fingers. “I bet Marie does. You might want to go ask her. And I think she said something earlier today about baking some cookies this evening.”
Willie and Lucy looked at each other. “Yeah, maybe we’ll just go ask Marie if she believes in Santa Claus and help her with the cookies, if she’ll let us.” He pulled Lucy out of her chair and they disappeared out the backdoor.
The Marshal and the Mountie followed the children out the door. They pulled on their gloves and pulled their coats closer around them.
“Getting’’ colder,” stated Jack.
“Yes, it is,” agreed Clive. “You know, Jack. We might just be in for a good snow.”
“Yeah, Clive. For once you might be right. And I don’t think I’ll mind. Make a good change from all the rain we normally get.”
“At least for a little while. The kids will enjoy snow for Christmas. But for now I think I’ll go check over my part of town and warn anyone I see to make sure they have plenty of wood either inside or close by. Don’t want anyone getting lost in a blizzard if this turns into one.” Clive stepped out into the ally behind the saloon and headed north for the Canadian part of Bordertown.
The Marshal reopened the saloon door and stuck his head back in. “Zack. Dom.” he yelled. “Zack, it’s snowin’ hard out here. Make sure you got lots a wood stored close.”
“Will do, Marshal.”
By the next morning there were about six inches of snow on the ground and it was still falling. Everyone was stopping to talk about the snow and wonder if it was just a small storm or if they were in for a bad blizzard which no one wanted right at Christmas time.
During the day the women of Bordertown, with the help of their men and children when they could get them to, finished decorating the saloon and laid out tables filled with all kinds of food. The smell of roast turkey and ham filled the kitchen that was in a room off of the saloon.
Diane and Dom, with help from Sally, baked several of the big birds along with some roasts, chickens, potatoes, and made a large pot of beans cooked with bacon and onions. Most of the women that came in added plates of cakes, cookies, candies and pies as well as other kinds of foods. The smells mingled and everyone was temped to try some of the goodies.
Jack and Clive went through the town stopping at every place of business and home reminding everyone to stock up on water and wood for warmth and cooking in case the storm got worse. By late afternoon there was over two feet of snow on the ground where it hadn’t been stomped to ice and slush by people walking or horses and wagons on the roads. But Christmas spirit was in the air as well as the snow and nothing could diminish the thoughts of celebration and fun.
By late afternoon the sun was almost gone since the community was far enough north that winter days were quite short. The sun didn’t come up until almost eight in the morning and was usually gone by four or five in the evening. But it didn’t bother the citizens of Bordertown. They were looking forward to the festivity regardless of the sunlight or the weather.
Marie Dumont had incorporated Corporal Bennett’s help in carrying large containers of cookies and boxes of presents for all the children of the town over to the saloon. Her checks glowing with cold and the enjoyment of what she was doing Marie piled dozens of the inexpensive gifts that she and Sally had wrapped in bright red or green paper under the Christmas tree. She hoped that she had counted right and had enough for each child as well as a candy cane for all of them.
Seeing that Marie had Clive busy helping her Jack decided he had his chance and headed for the office. He locked the door after he entered so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He lit a lantern and added some wood to the stove so he could stay warm. He took off his coat and hat and hung them on a peg by the door. He peaked out the window in the door again to be sure no one was going to bother him. There didn’t seem to be anyone interested in what might be happening in the Marshal and Mounties shared office.
Jack opened a drawer in his desk and took out a small can of red paint and a paint brush. With a little trouble he pried the lid off the can of paint and stepped to the door and knelt next to the faded red strip that he had mentioned to Clive about needing to be painted. On hands and knees he gave the red stripe a fresh coat of red paint. Quickly he made his way through the office, past their desks, his on the south side and Clive’s on the north side. On past the one jail cell that was on the south side near his desk and through the door leading to the back where there were two jail cells on the Canadian side and another one on the American side. When he was through he stood up to admire his handiwork. Going back he added a dab of paint here and there where he thought it wasn’t enough. When he was done he put the lid back on and hid the can and the brush back in his desk. He hoped Clive approved of his work in repainting the stripe.
He had one more chore to do before he could go to the party. He pulled on his hat, coat and gloves and left the office to trudge his way through the snow to the cabin he had on the edge of town behind the office. He quickly pulled out a burlap bag full of the wrapped gifts he had bought for his friends and slung it over his shoulder to go to Marie’s house where he planned to put the gifts under her Christmas tree. As he walked through more snow he had the thought that if someone saw him he might – and it was a very big and iffy might – look like the legend of Santy Claus with the bag slung over his shoulder. It brought a grin to his face as he wondered if Santy Claus ever wore a cowboy hat. He had thought about waiting until early the next morning before leaving his presents under the tree but had been afraid of waking Marie and frightening her.
There was no one near Marie’s house so he went in and quickly laid the gifts under the tree with the other gifts already there. He was glad he had remembered to write the names of the people the gifts were far on the package so that they would know who was to get each one. One for Marie, one for Willie, and Clive, Sally, Wendell, Zack, Liam, Diane and finally the one for Lucy.
For a moment he had an idea of seeing if he could figure out which present was for him as he was sure that at least Marie had bought one for him. But that would mean lighting a lantern and maybe drawing attention to himself so he decided not to. In moments he had left the house and was stomping through the snow drifts on his way to the saloon and the party. He was sure he could taste that chocolate fudge that Marie had said she was going to make.
All thoughts of fudge and Christmas were wiped out of Jacks mind at the sight of the Kruger brothers standing in the snow covered street near the jail. He headed for them but they ducked into the alley that led behind the office. He followed as he wanted to warn them not to disrupt the Christmas celebration that he was sure had already started at the saloon. He looked down the alley but only saw the tracks they had left in the two feet of snow that was in the area between the office and the next building. Two feet of snow that was swiftly becoming more as the big flakes drifted down on top of each other. For a brief second the Marshal wondered how bad the snowstorm was going to be. He knew he had told the Krugers to stay out of town but he hated the thought of throwing them or anyone else out of town during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. He would let them stay if they behaved and if they didn’t he would put them in jail for the night. Jail had to be better than a night out in a blizzard. He slogged on through the deep snow to the end of the office building without seeing them. He paused and gave a shake of his head deciding he wouldn’t follow them, and wouldn’t bother them as long as they didn’t cause any trouble. Jack turned to go back and was just ready to open the backdoor to the jail when something struck him hard on the back of his head and as he fell into a snow drift everything went black.
Tom Kruger stood over the Marshal still holding the chuck of firewood in his hand. He giggled as he tossed the stick of wood back on the stack of firewood.
“Now why did ya go and do that fer, Tom?” asked his brother.
“ ‘Cause I don’t like that there Marshal fer throwin’ us out in the cold. Now he can find out what it’s like to be out in the cold. And we’re gonna have us a Christmas Eve party.” Tom started going through the Marshal’s pockets. He pulled a couple of wadded up dollar bills out of his pants pocket. Then found a couple of coins in another pocket. “Is that all he’s got?”
“Maybe he keeps most of his money som’eres else,” said John. “Them Marshal’s have got to make more money than us poor cowboys.”
Still searching through Jack’s pockets, Tom finally grunted and gave up. “Well, this looks like all he’s got on him. Ain’t even enough to get drunk on.”
There was the sound of snow muffled footsteps coming down the boardwalk, then the sound of low pitched voices as several men walked by the alley.
“Come on, Tom. Let’s get out a here, ‘fore som’one sees us.” John pulled at Tom’s arm and the two brothers quickly left.
The snow swirled down faster and faster covering the still form of Marshal Jack Craddock as he lay on the ground. The wind whined and growled and tossed even more snow to drift on and around him.
Diane had lit all the candles on the tree as well as all the lanterns that were hung around the walls so that there would be enough light for everyone to see. She was pleased to see that all the garland, ribbons, and other decorations she had been guarding were still looking nice as people started crowding into the saloon.
Everyone was laughing and talking and indulging in the sumptuous feast that had been laid out. As the town didn’t have a regular preacher several of the men stood up and expressed their thoughts about the reason for the celebration. Afterward Clive played the piano while Sally sang a few songs. To get the children involved and liven things up Sally led the big group of children in singing some of the more simple songs and some of the grown ups joined in.
The children were getting restless so Marie, Sally and Diane handed out candy canes and gifts to them. Soon bright paper was scattered everywhere while the kids played with yo-yo’s, cloth dolls, bags of marbles and books Clive grabbed Marie by the hand and pulled her to a seat. “Come, take a break with me. You’ve done enough for now, Marie.”
She laughed but was glad to sink into the chair for a moment of rest. To Clive she seemed as excited as the children. For a moment he thought that it was to bad Marie and her husband, Dr. Jacque Dumont, had never had any children before he died. He knew that Marie was a woman that loved children dearly and it was a shame she had never had any. Of course it wasn’t too late and maybe – well he let that thought disappear. It wasn’t a thought for tonight.
He quite thinking about might-have-been’s when Marie asked him a question.
“Where is Jack? I have not seen him all evening.”
“Who knows,” answered Clive. He certainly didn’t care that Craddock wasn’t at the party. “He’s around somewhere. Probably with the men, talking about the weather, or horses, or something.” He tried to put his arm around the pretty French woman’s shoulders but she turned away from him.
“I have not seen him since before the party started,” said Marie as she looked around the room for the Marshal. “It is not like him to miss out on all the food and festivities. I know he was in earlier this afternoon trying to sneak a piece of cake and some cookies. But I have not seen him since.” Suddenly she was worried about her friend. It really wasn’t like him to miss out on the party.
“Clive, will you go and see if you can find Jack?”
She looked at him with a pleading that he couldn’t ignore. Besides he knew it was unusual for Craddock to miss a celebration like this especially where food was involved. “It is odd that he isn’t here. I know he planned to attend. I’ll take a look around town. Maybe he just got to talking to some friends. I’m sure he’s not far off.”
The party was starting to break up and most of the people were leaving. As he made his way out the door and down the street toward the jail Bennett spoke to several friends and asked them if they had seen the Marshal and when they said they hadn’t he asked them to tell the Marshal that he was looking for him if they saw him.
The wind whirled a bunch of snow into Bennett’s face as he walked toward the jail making him realize just how bad the storm was. There was more than three feet of snow drifted in places against the building. A lot of snow in the street and on the walkways had been packed down into ice. Clive made a guess at about two and a half feet of actual snow fall but it was hard to be sure as it was drifting so much with the way the wind was blowing. The Corporal made his way to the office he shared with Jack Craddock. The building was cold since the fire had gone out. Bennett picked up a handful of kindling and stuffed it in the stove and struck a match to it. When it lit he added larger pieces of firewood until he had a good fire going.
He wasn’t really worried about Craddock. He knew the Marshal could usually take care of himself. But where had he got off too? It really wasn’t like the man to miss a party like the one tonight. Especially since he knew Marie and Willie, as well as most of the town would be expecting him to be there.
He considered all possibilies, but wasn’t able to come up with a logical answer. At least not one that was logical to him. But then Jack Craddock was usually not logical at least not to Bennett’s way of thinking. He wondered if there could have been some sort of emergency that had caused the Marshal to leave town. He thought if there had been Craddock would have let him or someone else know.
The Corporal looked over the office thinking his friend might have left a note. He had done so a few times even though Jack couldn’t read or write very well. Marie had been teaching him and he was doing better, but there was no sign of a note.
He found himself staring at the red stripe that divided the building into two offices. His on the north and Craddock’s on the south. Jack had been here since Clive had been. The red line had been repainted very recently. Recently enough that Clive and smeared some of the fresh paint and left some half tracks here and there as he had looked over the office. The Mountie shook his head in wonder at a man that would repaint that stupid stripe, not tell him about it and then disappear.
Sighing in frustration at Craddock’s way of doing things and the fact he was going out into the storm, Clive went out to look over the town again. The snow was several inches deeper, the wind swirling the flakey white stuff around and around making it hard to see any distance at all as Clive trudged through the storm toward Marie’s house. Maybe Jack had been waiting there for Marie for some reason.
He knocked on the door which was answered quickly by Willie. He looked disappointed when he saw it was Clive and not Jack. Clive didn’t have to ask to know that the boy hadn’t seen the Marshal. “I just stopped to make sure you, Marie, and Lucy got here safe.”
Marie appeared at the door with Lucy right behind her. “Have you found Jack?”
“No, Marie, but I’ll keep looking. He couldn’t have gone that far without someone seeing him.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Willie eagerly reaching for his coat hanging on the banister leading to the upstairs where he had tossed it when he first got to the house.
“No you will not, Willie. You will stay right here with Lucy and I,” said Marie as she laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Marie’s right,” said Clive. “It’s getting worse outside and you need to stay here.”
“Ahhhhh, Corporal Bennett. I’m almost grown and I can help you look for the Marshal.”
“No, Willie,” pleaded Marie. “Lucy and I need you here.”
“Marie’s right, Willie,” agreed Lucy. “It’s dangerous outside.”
“I know that,” argued the boy. “That’s why I want to help look for Marshal Craddock.”
“Stay here, Willie,” commanded the Corporal as he stepped back out the door, pulling it shut tightly behind him. In moments the three people left looking out the window in the door couldn’t see him through the flurry of the snow.
“Come,” said Marie. “We’ll make some hot chocolate and have some cookies. I am sure Clive will find Jack and they will come back soon.” She turned to lead the way to the kitchen with Lucy right behind her.
Willie started to follow then hesitated. Before he could change his mind he grabbed his coat off the railing and his hat from the floor where he had dropped it. He opened the door and was gone.
Marie and Lucy heard the door open and close. Both rushed back but by the time Marie got the door open the boy was out of sight. “He had to go,” said Marie to the girl.
“I know,” said Lucy. “I just hope they are all safe out there in this horrid storm.”
“I’m sure they will be,” Marie assured Lucy but in her mind and heart she was as worried as Lucy was. “Clive will look after Willie.
Corporal Bennett went from store to store but most were closed at this late hour especially on Christmas Eve. He did find a few saloons that were still open and he asked the few patrons that were in them. No one had seen the Marshal or if they had they didn’t admit to it. Cold and tired he went into the last bar on the south end of town. As he entered the darkened saloon he took off his hat and shook the snow off of it.
“Hey,” complained a man sitting at a table near the door. “Watch what you’re doin’ there. It’s cold enough in here.”
“Sorry,” said Clive as he walked over to the bar. “Evenin’, Henry,” he said to the bartender.
“Corporal,” the bartender greeted the Mountie. “What ya doin’ out in this weather, at this time a night. Ya want a drink?”
“A coffee would be nice,” answered Clive. “You haven’t seen Marshal Craddock by chance, have you?”
“No, sure haven’t,” said Henry. “Don’t tell me the Marshal done gone missin’ on Christmas Eve,” he laughted at his own joke.
“No, of course not,” Clive denied. “I was just wondering.” He picked up the cup of coffee that Henry had set before him and turned around to survey the few men that were in the saloon. He grimaced at the taste of the hot, stale brew that had been re-heated to many times. Most of the handful of men he saw were on their way to getting drunk and having hangovers for there Christmas presents. He recognized a couple and knew they were miners. Over in the corner were two men with a bottle. One played at playing solitar with a deck of dirty, bent up cards. After a few seconds he recognized them as the pair that Craddock had run out of town after they had redecorated Diane’s Christmas tree at the Denny saloon. As he stared at them they turned and stared back for a moment.
“Kind of out of your jurisdiction, ain’t ya, Mountie?” snarled one of the Kruger brothers.
“Now don’t go startin’ trouble, Tom,” said the bartender, Henry. “I’d sure hate to have to throw you out in a storm on Christmas Eve. The Corporal is my guest here.”
He grinned at Bennett as he tried to ease the situation. “I don’t want no trouble.”
“Neither do I, Henry. ‘Sides I gotta be going. If you do see the Marshal tell him I’ll be at the office.” Bennett took one last look at the Kruger brothers and left.
He headed back for the office, wondering what the Krugers were doing back in town after Craddock had asked them to leave. He was beginning to think it a bit strange that they were in town and Craddock was missing. Could they have something to do with not being able to find the Marshal? He stopped and leaned against a post and watched the door to Henry’s saloon for a minute. He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see Willie Haden beside him. “What are you doing here, Willie? I told you to stay with Marie.”
“I had to come out and look for the Marshal, Corporal Bennett. I’m worried about him. It ain’t like him to disappear on Christmas Eve when there was a party.” The boy looked up at Clive with an expression of anxiety on his face.
“Yeah, I know, Willie. I didn’t want to admit it to Marie, but I’m getting worried, too,” said Clive.
“I looked at the barn, and his horses are still there.”
“Yes, I checked, too. And I’ve been all over town, and no one I’ve talked to has seen him.”
“What do we do now?” asked Willie.
The Mountie didn’t answer as he saw the Krugers come out of Henry’s. They were laughing at each other as they made their way along the icy board walk bumping into each other and the walls of the buildings. As they came to the place where Bennett and Willie were standing they stared at them with bleary eyes as if they were trying to recognize who it was that they were looking at.
“Well, now, if it ain’t that there Mountie,” said John Kruger pointing a finger at the lawman. “What ya doin’ out here in the cold, Mountie?” He giggled and then hiccupped.
“He’s makin’ sure that there little boy gets home so that Santy Claus can come see him tonight,” mumbled Tom.
“I thought that Marshal Craddock told you to get out of Bordertown,” said Bennett to the pair.
“Oh, he did.” Tom leaned against the nearest store wall to keep from falling down. “He done told us but me and my – my,” he waved his hand at John, “my brother, John decided he didn’t like bein’ tole what to do so we didn’t do it. Did we, John?”
John reached over and patted Tom on the shoulder. “No we didn’t want to so’sss we didn’t an’ – an’ we done made that Marshal wish he did – did – didn’t tell us.”
Bennett jerked his head at John’s almost unintelligible words. “What did you say about Marshal Craddock?”
John eased himself into a setting position against the wall next to his brother. “I – I sa – said – I said we done made that Mas-hal eat-tttt ate his words.”
“Yeah – we diddddd,” muttered Tom. He giggled again followed by another hiccup. “W-w-w-we did make him e-e-e-eat that snow. It sssss-ure’ssss funny.”
Bennett leaped at Tom Kruger, caught him by the front of his shirt and jerked him to his feet. “Where’s Craddock? What did you do to him?”
Tom just looked at the Mountie through hazy, unclear eyes as if he couldn’t understand what he was saying. Bennett pulled Kruger’s gun from his holster, sliding it behind his belt. He looked down at John Kruger who was grinning up at him. Bennett reached down and relieved John of his gun, too. “Come on. You’re both going to jail until I can figure out what is going on.” He nudged John with his boot toe. “Get up.”
John didn’t even try. “I doooon wa-n to.”
Holding Tom with one hand Bennett pulled John to his feet with the other hand. “March!” he commanded.
Willie had been watching the three men and now he grabbed John and started pulling him down the street toward the jail. It took him and Bennett several minutes to get the two drunken brothers back to the jail and locked in a cell.
Bennett locked the cell door behind the men. Tom collapsed onto the bunk and in moment he was snoring. John sank down on the floor by the bunk and grinned up at the Mountie.
“Where’s the Marshal?”
John Kruger gave a nasty laugh.
“You can tell me or not but for now you have been arrested for murder.”
“Yes, murder. Since I don’t know where the Marshal is or even if he is alive.”
John Kruger was sobering up quickly at the threat of a murder charge. “Now see here, Mountie. That there Marshal was still alive the last time we saw him.”
“Tell me where that was.” Bennett didn’t think he was getting anywhere in his interrogation of his prisoners. He wondered if he would be better off out looking for his friend.
Again Kruger gave the raspy laugh. “You might find him in the spring. After the snow melts.”
Willie had stood off to the side watching but could see that Kruger wasn’t about to tell where he had seen the Marshal. He left through the door leading to back room where there were three cells and a big stack of fire wood. From there he went on out the back door of the jail.
He had unbuttoned his coat while in the office but when the cold of the late evening hit him he quickly started to refasten it. It was while he was preoccupied with buttoning his coat that he stumbled over a mound of snow and fell face first into the drift. He came up spitting snow and wondering what he had fallen over that was hid in the snow drift.
He dug away some more snow and realized it was the body of a man he had tripped over. His mind was wondering who it was as he frantically dug deeper uncovering more of the man. It was at this moment he realized that it was Marshal Craddock that was in the snow and he started yelling as loud as he could for Corporal Bennett.
Bennett heard the boy yelling and ran to find out what was wrong. He saw Willie on his knees digging in the snow that was flying around his body.
“It’s the Marshal, Corporal Bennett. The Marshal’s buried here in the snow.” He looked up at the Mountie with a wretchedly, hopeless look on his face and with tears running down his cheeks. “He can’t be dead. He can’t.”
Bennett was already on his knees beside the boy helping him dig. In seconds he had Craddock’s head out of the snow and then most of his body. He grabbed his friend’s wrist and felt a faint pulse. Bending low the Mountie reached under his friend and pulled him up so that he could carry Jack over his shoulder. In a few more seconds he had carried Jack through the jail and into the room on the north side of the office that Clive used as his quarters.
“Willie,” he looked around at the boy. “Go get Marie.”
But Willie just stood staring down at the Marshal. “Is he – is he – dead,” stammered the boy.
“No. No, he’s not dead. But he needs Marie’s help. Go now.”
Willie turned and ran out of the office.
Clive hoped he had been right when he had assured Willie that Jack wasn’t dead. He had no idea of how long the man might have been laying out in the cold under the snow drift. Or that he would survive the ordeal. He felt for the faint pulse again and was relieved that he was able to find it.
In only minutes Marie rushed into the office with Willie and Lucy right behind her. By this time Clive had pulled off Jack’s wet, cold gloves, coat, pants and boots and a wool muffler he had around his neck, and wrapped him in a couple of blankets. The lady doctor knelt beside the bed and felt for a pulse as Clive had. Relived she checked him over some more finding a large lump on the side of his head.
“He hit his head when he fell,” she stated.
“Or someone hit him,” Clive said glumly. He was sure that the Krugers were responsible for what had happened to the Marshal. Most likely one of them had managed to sneak up behind Craddock and hit him on the head then they had left him to die in the snow and cold.
“How ever it may have happened, right now we need to get him warm. He is still too cold. I hope that he does not have frostbite.” Marie considered all the times she had taken care of people in the cold winters of northern Montana and southern Canada. She had seen too many cases of hypothermia and frostbite. Some had died when she didn’t think they should have, and others had survived when she didn’t think they would. “Willie, get that fire stoked up and a kettle of water heating. Clive, I have some hot water bottles we can place around him. Can you get them?”
Willie dashed to add more wood to the stove, while Clive headed for the doctors house to get the hot water bottles. Lucy had grabbed the kettle Clive had in his room and was filling it with water to heat.
“Oh, Marie,” she called as a big, black cat entered the room, and jumped up on the bed with the Marshal. “Lucky is on the bed.” Normally Clive didn’t let the cat in his room and it stayed in the office or wandered the streets of the town frequently sleeping in Craddock’s cabin.
Lucky lay down beside the Marshal and started purring.
“It is all right, Lucy. Lucky’s body heat should help warm Jack,” said Marie. The cat looked up at her with his big, yellow eyes and meowed softly as if to say he would do the best he could for his friend.
Moments later Jack wiggled, groaned, and opened his own eyes to stare at Marie. “Wh – wh – hap – ened?” he whispered.
“Ssssss – ,” Marie hushed him. “Do not try to talk. You have a head injury.”
“Yeah,” muttered the Marshal. “Sure feels like someone’s beatin’ a drum inside my head.”
“Just lie still, Jack. You will be all right.”
It was noon on Christmas day. Sitting on the couch and waiting, the smells coming from the Marie’s kitchen were making Jack almost drool in anticipation of the dinner the lady doctor and Lucy were preparing. Lucky, the black cat, lay by the Marshal and purred contentedly as Jack petted his sleek fur. His belly was already full of some Christmas turkey and roast that Lucy had fed him.
Clive was standing near the kitchen door as if to keep watch over the preparations in the kitchen. He looked over at the Christmas tree that sat in the corner of the living room with the pile of wrapping paper and ribbons still under it f
rom when the gifts had been unwrapped. He could feel the small Barlow knife in his pocket that Jack had given to him. He was sure Willie had the one Jack had given him in his pocket, too. Marie and Lucy were proudly wearing the scarves that Jack had given to them even though they didn’t need to in the house.
Although he would never admit it to anyone he was thankful that the Marshal was alive to enjoy this special day with him and their friends. He knew he grumbled and complained about the weird things that Jack Craddock was apt to do, usually just so that he, Clive, would find fault with what ever it was that the Marshal had done. It seemed to be an ongoing way of expressing their friendship with out making a big to-do about it. He didn’t want to think what would have happened if Willie hadn’t tripped over Jack and found him.
Clive looked over at Jack and grinned. Jack wore the shirt Marie had given to him and the bow tie Lucy had given him. He held the small wooden horse that Willie had carved for him.
There was a knock on the door and Clive quickly went to open it. He was greeted by Zac and Diane Denney and behind them were Sally and Windell. All of them held dishes with good smelling food.
“Come in,” Clive said as he stepped back to make room for them.
Diane and Sally quickly went to the kitchen with their contributions to the dinner.
A few minutes later Marie appeared at the door and smiled at her two friends. “Dinner is served.”
Clive stood and offered her his arm to escort her into the dining room where the table was loaded with good food. They were soon all seated partaking of the Christmas dinner.
For a moment Jack let his thoughts go to what might have been if Willie hadn’t tripped over him and by doing so found him. He knew he was very lucky to be here today. He didn’t think he would ever take friendship for granted anymore. With a quick mental shake he passed his plate so that Marie could pile roast turkey on it.