Santa Claus at Simpson’s Bar
by Bret Harte
It was nearly midnight when the festivities were interrupted. “Hush!” said Dick Bullen, holding up his hand. It was the querulous voice of Johnny from his adjacent closet: “Oh, dad!”
The Old Man arose hurriedly and disappeared in the closet. Presently he reappeared. “His rheumatiz is coming on agin bad,” he explained, “and he wants rubbin’.” He lifted the demijohn of whiskey from the table and shook it. It was empty. Dick Bullen put down his tin cup with an embarrassed laugh. So did the others. The Old Man examined their contents, and said hopefully, “I reckon that’s enough; he don’t need much. You hold on, all o’ you, for a spell, and I’ll be back;” and vanished in the closet with an old flannel shirt and the whiskey. The door closed but imperfectly, and the following dialogue was distinctly audible:—
“Now, sonny, whar does she ache worst?”
“Sometimes over yar and sometimes under yer; but it’s most powerful from yer to yer. Rub yer, dad.”
A silence seemed to indicate a brisk rubbing. Then Johnny:—
“Hevin’ a good time out yar, dad?”
“Tomorrer’s Chrismiss,—ain’t it?”
“Yes, sonny. How does she feel now?”
“Better. Rub a little furder down. Wot’s Chrismiss, anyway? Wot’s it all about?”
“Oh, it’s a day.”
This exhaustive definition was apparently satisfactory, for there was a silent interval of rubbing. Presently Johnny again:—
“Mar sez that everywhere else but yer everybody gives things to everybody Chrismiss, and then she jist waded inter you. She sez thar’s a man they call Sandy Claws, not a white man, you know, but a kind o’ Chinemin, comes down the chimbley night afore Chrismiss and gives things to chillern,—boys like me. Puts ‘em in their butes! Thet’s what she tried to play upon me. Easy, now, pop, whar are you rubbin’ to,—thet’s a mile from the place. She jest made that up, didn’t she, jest to aggrewate me and you? Don’t rub thar—Why, dad!”
In the great quiet that seemed to have fallen upon the house the sigh of the near pines and the drip of leaves without was very distinct. Johnny’s voice, too, was lowered as he went on: “Don’t you take on now, for I’m gettin’ all right fast. Wot’s the boys doin’ out thar?”
The Old Man partly opened the door and peered through. His guests were sitting there sociably enough, and there were a few silver coins and a lean buckskin purse on the table. “Bettin’ on suthin’,—some little game or ‘nother. They’re all right,” he replied to Johnny, and recommenced his rubbing.
“I’d like to take a hand and win some money,” said Johnny reflectively, after a pause.
The Old Man glibly repeated what was evidently a familiar formula, that if Johnny would wait until he struck it rich in the tunnel, he’d have lots of money, etc., etc.
“Yes,” said Johnny, “but you don’t. And whether you strike it or I win it, it’s about the same. It’s all luck. But it’s mighty cur’o's about Chrismiss,—ain’t it? Why do they call it Chrismiss?”
Perhaps from some instinctive deference to the overhearing of his guests, or from some vague sense of incongruity, the Old Man’s reply was so low as to be inaudible beyond the room.
“Yes,” said Johnny, with some slight abatement of interest, “I’ve heerd o’ him before. Thar, that’ll do dad. I don’t ache near so bad as I did. Now wrap me tight in this yer blanket. So. Now,” he added in a muffled whisper, “sit down yer by me till I go asleep.” To assure himself of obedience he disengaged one hand from the blanket, and, grasping his father’s sleeve, again composed himself to rest.
For some moments the Old Man waited patiently. Then the unwonted stillness of the house excited his curiosity, and without moving from the bed he cautiously opened the door with his disengaged hand, and looked into the main room. To his infinite surprise it was dark and deserted. But even then a smoldering log on the hearth broke, and by the upspringing blaze he saw the figure of Dick Bullen sitting by the dying embers.
Dick started, rose, and came somewhat unsteadily toward him.
“Whar’s the boys?” said the Old Man.
“Gone up the canon on a little pasear. They’re coming back for me in a minit. I’m waitin’ round for ‘em. What are you starin’ at, Old Man?” he added, with a forced laugh; “do you think I’m drunk?”
The Old Man might have been pardoned the supposition, for Dick’s eyes were humid and his face flushed. He loitered and lounged back to the chimney, yawned, shook himself, buttoned up his coat and laughed. “Liquor ain’t so plenty as that, Old Man. Now don’t you git up,” he continued, as the Old Man made a movement to release his sleeve from Johnny’s hand. “Don’t you mind manners. Sit jest whar you be; I’m goin’ in a jiffy. Thar, that’s them now.”
There was a low tap at the door. Dick Bullen opened it quickly, nodded “Good-night” to his host, and disappeared. The Old Man would have followed him but for the hand that still unconsciously grasped his sleeve. He could have easily disengaged it; it was small, weak and emaciated. But perhaps because it was small, weak and emaciated he changed his mind, and, drawing his chair closer to the bed, rested his head upon it. In this defenceless attitude the potency of his earlier potations surprised him. The room flickered and faded before his eyes, reappeared, faded again, went out, and left him—asleep.
Meantime Dick Bullen, closing the door, confronted his companions. “Are you ready?” said Staples. “Ready,” said Dick; “what’s the time?” “Past twelve,” was the reply; “can you make it?—it’s nigh on fifty miles, the round trip hither and yon.” “I reckon,” returned Dick shortly. “Whar’s the mare?” “Bill and Jack’s holdin’ her at the crossin’.” “Let ‘em hold on a minit longer,” said Dick.
He turned and reentered the house softly. By the light of the guttering candle and dying fire he saw that the door of the little room was open. He stepped toward it on tiptoe and looked in. The Old Man had fallen back in his chair, snoring, his helpless feet thrust out in a line with his collapsed shoulders, and his hat pulled over his eyes. Beside him, on a narrow wooden bedstead, lay Johnny, muffled tightly in a blanket that hid all save a strip of forehead and a few curls damp with perspiration. Dick Bullen made a step forward, hesitated, and glanced over his shoulder into the deserted room. Everything was quiet. With a sudden resolution he parted his huge mustaches with both hands, and stooped over the sleeping boy. But even as he did so a mischievous blast, lying in wait, swooped down the chimney, rekindled the hearth, and lit up the room with a shameless glow, from which Dick fled in bashful terror.
His companions were already waiting for him at the crossing. Two of them were struggling in the darkness with some strange misshapen bulk, which as Dick came nearer took the semblance of a great yellow horse.
It was the mare. She was not a pretty picture. From her Roman nose to her rising haunches, from her arched spine hidden by the stiff machillas of a Mexican saddle, to her thick, straight, bony legs, there was not a line of equine grace. In her half blind but wholly vicious white eyes, in her protruding under-lip, in her monstrous color, there was nothing but ugliness and vice.
“Now, then,” said Staples, “stand cl’ar of her heels, boy, and up with you. Don’t miss your first holt of her mane, and mind ye get your off stirrup quick. Ready!”
There was a leap, a scrambling, a bound, a wild retreat of the crowd, a circle of flying hoofs, two springless leaps that jarred the earth, a rapid play and jingle of spurs, a plunge, and then the voice of Dick somewhere in the darkness. “All right!”
“Don’t take the lower road back onless you’re pushed hard for time! Don’t hold her in down hill. We’ll be at the ford at five. G’lang! Hoopa! Mula! GO!”
A splash, a spark struck from the ledge in the road, a clatter in the rocky cut beyond, and Dick was gone.
- – - – -
Sing, O Muse, the ride of Richard Bullen! Sing, O Muse, of chivalrous men! the sacred quest, the doughty deeds, the battery of low churls, the fearsome ride and gruesome perils of the Flower of Simpson’s Bar! Alack! she is dainty, this Muse! She will have none of this bucking brute and swaggering, ragged rider, and I must fain follow him in prose, afoot!
It was one o’clock, and yet he had only gained Rattlesnake Hill. For in that time Jovita had rehearsed to him all her imperfections and practised all her vices. Thrice had she stumbled. Twice had she thrown up her Roman nose in a straight line with the reins, and, resisting bit and spur, struck out madly across country. Twice had she reared, and, rearing, fallen backward; and twice had the agile Dick, unharmed, regained his seat before she found her vicious legs again. And a mile beyond them, at the foot of a long hill, was Rattlesnake Creek. Dick knew that here was the crucial test of his ability to perform his enterprise, set his teeth grimly, put his knees well into her flanks, and changed his defensive tactics to brisk aggression. Bullied and maddened, Jovita began the descent of the hill. Here the artful Richard pretended to hold her in with ostentatious objurgation and well-feigned cries of alarm. It is unnecessary to add that Jovita instantly ran away. Nor need I state the time made in the descent; it is written in the chronicles of Simpson’s Bar. Enough that in another moment, as it seemed to Dick, she was splashing on the overflowed banks of Rattlesnake Creek. As Dick expected, the momentum she had acquired carried her beyond the point of balking, and, holding her well together for a mighty leap, they dashed into the middle of the swiftly flowing current. A few moments of kicking, wading, and swimming, and Dick drew a long breath on the opposite bank.
The road from Rattlesnake Creek to Red Mountain was tolerably level. Either the plunge into Rattlesnake Creek had dampened her baleful fire, or the art which led to it had shown her the superior wickedness of her rider, for Jovita no longer wasted her surplus energy in wanton conceits. Once she bucked, but it was from force of habit; once she shied, but it was from a new, freshly-painted meeting-house at the crossing of the country road. Hollows, ditches, gravelly deposits, patches of freshly-springing grasses, flew from beneath her rattling hoofs. She began to smell unpleasantly, once or twice she coughed slightly, but there was no abatement of her strength or speed. By two o’clock he had passed Red Mountain and begun the descent to the plain. Ten minutes later the driver of the fast Pioneer coach was overtaken and passed by a “man on a Pinto hoss,”—an event sufficiently notable for remark. At half past two Dick rose in his stirrups with a great shout. Stars were glittering through the rifted clouds, and beyond him, out of the plain, rose two spires, a flagstaff, and a straggling line of black objects. Dick jingled his spurs and swung his riata, Jovita bounded forward, and in another moment they swept into Tuttleville, and drew up before the wooden piazza of “The Hotel of All Nations.”
What transpired that night at Tuttleville is not strictly a part of this record. Briefly I may state, however, that after Jovita had been handed over to a sleepy ostler, whom she at once kicked into unpleasant consciousness, Dick sallied out with the barkeeper for a tour of the sleeping town. Lights still gleamed from a few saloons and gambling houses; but, avoiding these, they stopped before several closed shops, and by persistent tapping and judicious outcry roused the proprietors from their beds, and made them unbar the doors of their magazines and expose their wares. Sometimes they were met by curses, but oftener by interest and some concern in their needs. It was three o’clock before this pleasantry was given over, and with a small waterproof bag of India rubber strapped on his shoulders Dick returned to the hotel. And then he sprang to the saddle, and dashed down the lonely street and out into the lonelier plain, where presently the lights, the black line of houses, the spires, and the flagstaff sank into the earth behind him again and were lost in the distance.
The storm had cleared away, the air was brisk and cold, the outlines of adjacent landmarks were distinct, but it was half-past four before Dick reached the meeting-house and the crossing of the country road. To avoid the rising grade he had taken a longer and more circuitous road, in whose viscid mud Jovita sank fetlock deep at every bound. It was a poor preparation for a steady ascent of five miles more; but Jovita, gathering her legs under her, took it with her usual blind, unreasoning fury, and a half hour later reached the long level that led to Rattlesnake Creek. Another half hour would bring him to the Creek. He threw the reins lightly upon the neck of the mare, chirruped to her, and began to sing.
Suddenly Jovita shied with a bound that would have unseated a less practised rider. Hanging to her rein was a figure that had leaped from the bank, and at the same time from the road before her arose a shadowy horse and rider. “Throw up your hands,” commanded the second apparition, with an oath.
Dick felt the mare tremble, quiver, and apparently sink under him. He knew what it meant, and was prepared.
“Stand aside, Jack Simpson. I know you, you d——d thief! Let me pass, or—”
He did not finish the sentence. Jovita rose straight in the air with a terrific bound, throwing the figure from her bit with a single shake of her vicious head, and charged with deadly malevolence down on the impediment before her. An oath, a pistol-shot, horse and highwayman rolled over in the road, and the next moment Jovita was a hundred yards away. But the good right arm of her rider, shattered by a bullet, dropped helplessly at his side.
Without slacking his speed he lifted the reins to his left hand. But a few moments later he was obliged to halt and tighten the saddle-girths that had slipped in the onset. This in his crippled condition took some time. He had no fear of pursuit, but, looking up, he saw that the eastern stars were already paling, and that the distant peaks had lost their ghostly whiteness, and now stood out blackly against a lighter sky. Day was upon him. Then completely absorbed in a single idea, he forgot the pain of his wound, and, mounting again, dashed on towards Rattlesnake Creek. But now Jovita’s breath came broken by gasps, Dick reeled in his saddle, and brighter and brighter grew the sky.
Ride, Richard; run, Jovita; linger, O day!
For the last few rods there was a roaring in his ears. Was it exhaustion from a loss of blood, or what? He was dazed and giddy as he swept down the hill, and did not recognize his surroundings. Had he taken the wrong road, or was this Rattlesnake Creek?
It was. But the brawling creek he had swam a few hours before had risen, more than doubled its volume, and now rolled a swift and resistless river between him and Rattlesnake Hill. For the first time that night Richard’s heart sank within him. The river, the mountain, the quickening east, swam before his eyes. He shut them to recover his self-control. In that brief interval, by some fantastic mental process, the little room at Simpson’s Bar and the figures of the sleeping father and son rose upon him. He opened his eyes wildly, cast off his coat, pistol, boots, and saddle, bound his precious pack tightly to his shoulders, grasped the bare flanks of Jovita with his bared knees, and with a shout dashed into the yellow water. A cry arose from the opposite bank as the head of a man and horse struggled for a few moments against the battling current, and then were swept away amidst uprooted trees and whirling driftwood.
- – - – -
The Old man started and woke. The fire on the hearth was dead, the candle in the outer room flickering in its socket, and somebody was rapping at the door. He opened it, but fell back with a cry before the dripping, half-naked figure that reeled against the doorpost.
“Hush! Is he awake yet?”
“No; but Dick—”
“Dry up, you old fool! Get me some whiskey, quick!” The Old Man flew, and returned with—an empty bottle! Dick would have sworn, but his strength was not equal to the occasion. He staggered, caught at the handle of the door, and motioned to the Old Man.
“Thar’s suthin’ in my pack yer for Johnny. Take it off. I can’t.”
The Old Man unstrapped the pack, and laid it before the exhausted man.
“Open it, quick.”
He did so with trembling fingers. It contained only a few poor toys,—cheap and barbaric enough, goodness knows, but bright with paint and tinsel. One of them was broken; another, I fear, was irretrievably ruined by water; and on the third—ah me! there was a cruel spot.
“It don’t look like much, that’s a fact,” said Dick ruefully … “But it’s the best we could do…. Take ‘em Old Man, and put ‘em in his stocking, and tell him—tell him, you know—hold me, Old Man—” The Old Man caught at his sinking figure. “Tell him,” said Dick, with a weak little laugh,—”tell him Sandy Claus has come.”
And even so, bedraggled, ragged, unshaven and unshorn, with one arm hanging helplessly at his side, Santa Claus came to Simpson’s Bar, and fell fainting on the first threshold. The Christmas dawn came slowly after, touching the remoter peaks with the rosy warmth of ineffable love. And it looked so tenderly on Simpson’s Bar that the whole mountain, as if caught in a generous action, blushed to the skies.