Most probably you’ve heard of O. Henry from the candy bar and The Gift of the Magi. Time is short this week, and I can’t do a profile of this fascinating American writer right now, but here is one of his many short stories that you might not have come across yet.
Cherokee was the civic father of Yellowhammer. Yellowhammer was a new mining town constructed mainly of canvas and undressed pine. Cherokee was a prospector. One day while his burro was eating quartz and pine burrs Cherokee turned up with his pick a nugget, weighing thirty ounces. He staked his claim and then, being a man of breadth and hospitality, sent out invitations to his friends in three States to drop in and share his luck.
Not one of the invited guests sent regrets. They rolled in from the Gila country, from Salt River, from the Pecos, from Albuquerque and Phoenix and Santa Fe, and from the camps intervening.
When a thousand citizens had arrived and taken up claims they named the town Yellowhammer, appointed a vigilance committee, and presented Cherokee with a watch-chain made of nuggets.
Three hours after the presentation ceremonies Cherokee’s claim played out. He had located a pocket instead of a vein. He abandoned it and staked others one by one. Luck had kissed her hand to him. Never afterward did he turn up enough dust in Yellowhammer to pay his bar bill. But his thousand invited guests were mostly prospering, and Cherokee smiled and congratulated them.
Yellowhammer was made up of men who took off their hats to a smiling loser; so they invited Cherokee to say what he wanted.
“Me?” said Cherokee, “oh, grubstakes will be about the thing. I reckon I’ll prospect along up in the Mariposas. If I strike it up there I will most certainly let you all know about the facts. I never was any hand to hold out cards on my friends.”
In May Cherokee packed his burro and turned its thoughtful, mouse-coloured forehead to the north. Many citizens escorted him to the undefined limits of Yellowhammer and bestowed upon him shouts of commendation and farewells. Five pocket flasks without an air bubble between contents and cork were forced upon him; and he was bidden to consider Yellowhammer in perpetual commission for his bed, bacon and eggs, and hot water for shaving in the event that luck did not see fit to warm her hands by his campfire in the Mariposas.
The name of the father of Yellowhammer was given him by the gold hunters in accordance with their popular system of nomenclature. It was not necessary for a citizen to exhibit his baptismal certificate in order to acquire a cognomen. A man’s name was his personal property. For convenience in calling him up to the bar and in designating him among other blue-shirted bipeds, a temporary appellation, title, or epithet was conferred upon him by the public.
Personal peculiarities formed the source of the majority of such informal baptisms. Many were easily dubbed geographically from the regions from which they confessed to have hailed. Some announced themselves to be “Thompsons,” and “Adamses,” and the like, with a brazenness and loudness that cast a cloud upon their titles. A few vaingloriously and shamelessly uncovered their proper and indisputable names. This was held to be unduly arrogant, and did not win popularity. One man who said he was Chesterton L. C. Belmont, and proved it by letters, was given till sundown to leave the town. Such names as “Shorty,” “Bow-legs,” “Texas,” “Lazy Bill,” “Thirsty Rogers,” “Limping Riley,” “The Judge,” and “California Ed” were in favour.
Cherokee derived his title from the fact that he claimed to have lived for a time with that tribe in the Indian Nation.
On the twentieth day of December Baldy, the mail rider, brought Yellowhammer a piece of news.
“What do I see in Albuquerque,” said Baldy, to the patrons of the bar, “but Cherokee all embellished and festooned up like the Czar of Turkey, and lavishin’ money in bulk. Him and me seen the elephant and the owl, and we had specimens of this seidlitz powder wine; and Cherokee he audits all the bills, C.O.D. His pockets looked like a pool table’s after a fifteen-ball run.”
“Cherokee must have struck pay ore,” remarked California Ed. “Well, he’s white. I’m much obliged to him for his success.”
“Seems like Cherokee would ramble down to Yellowhammer and see his friends,” said another, slightly aggrieved. “But that’s the way. Prosperity is the finest cure there is for lost forgetfulness.”
“You wait,” said Baldy; “I’m comin’ to that. Cherokee strikes a three-foot vein up in the Mariposas that assays a trip to Europe to the ton, and he closes it out to a syndicate outfit for a hundred thousand hasty dollars in cash. Then he buys himself a baby sealskin overcoat and a red sleigh, and what do you think he takes it in his head to do next?”
“Chuck-a-luck,” said Texas, whose ideas of recreation were the gamester’s.
“Come and Kiss Me, Ma Honey,” sang Shorty, who carried tintypes in his pocket and wore a red necktie while working on his claim.
“Bought a saloon?” suggested Thirsty Rogers.
“Cherokee took me to a room,” continued Baldy, “and showed me. He’s got that room full of drums and dolls and skates and bags of candy and jumping-jacks and toy lambs and whistles and such infantile truck. And what do you think he’s goin’ to do with them inefficacious knick-knacks? Don’t surmise none–Cherokee told me. He’s goin’ to lead ’em up in his red sleigh and–wait a minute, don’t order no drinks yet–he’s goin’ to drive down here to Yellowhammer and give the kids–the kids of this here town–the biggest Christmas tree and the biggest cryin’ doll and Little Giant Boys’ Tool Chest blowout that was ever seen west of the Cape Hatteras.”
Two minutes of absolute silence ticked away in the wake of Baldy’s words. It was broken by the House, who, happily conceiving the moment to be ripe for extending hospitality, sent a dozen whisky glasses spinning down the bar, with the slower travelling bottle bringing up the rear.
“Didn’t you tell him?” asked the miner called Trinidad.
“Well, no,” answered Baldy, pensively; “I never exactly seen my way to.
“You see, Cherokee had this Christmas mess already bought and paid for; and he was all flattered up with self-esteem over his idea; and we had in a way flew the flume with that fizzy wine I speak of; so I never let on.”
“I cannot refrain from a certain amount of surprise,” said the Judge, as he hung his ivory-handled cane on the bar, “that our friend Cherokee should possess such an erroneous conception of–ah–his, as it were, own town.”
“Oh, it ain’t the eighth wonder of the terrestrial world,” said Baldy. “Cherokee’s been gone from Yellowhammer over seven months. Lots of things could happen in that time. How’s he to know that there ain’t a single kid in this town, and so far as emigration is concerned, none expected?”
“Come to think of it,” remarked California Ed, “it’s funny some ain’t drifted in. Town ain’t settled enough yet for to bring in the rubber-ring brigade, I reckon.”
“To top off this Christmas-tree splurge of Cherokee’s,” went on Baldy, “he’s goin’ to give an imitation of Santa Claus. He’s got a white wig and whiskers that disfigure him up exactly like the pictures of this William Cullen Longfellow in the books, and a red suit of fur-trimmed outside underwear, and eight-ounce gloves, and a stand-up, lay-down croshayed red cap. Ain’t it a shame that a outfit like that can’t get a chance to connect with a Annie and Willie’s prayer layout?”
“When does Cherokee allow to come over with his truck?” inquired Trinidad.
“Mornin’ before Christmas,” said Baldy. “And he wants you folks to have a room fixed up and a tree hauled and ready. And such ladies to assist as can stop breathin’ long enough to let it be a surprise for the kids.”
The unblessed condition of Yellowhammer had been truly described. The voice of childhood had never gladdened its flimsy structures; the patter of restless little feet had never consecrated the one rugged highway between the two rows of tents and rough buildings. Later they would come. But now Yellowhammer was but a mountain camp, and nowhere in it were the roguish, expectant eyes, opening wide at dawn of the enchanting day; the eager, small hands to reach for Santa’s bewildering hoard; the elated, childish voicings of the season’s joy, such as the coming good things of the warm-hearted Cherokee deserved.
Of women there were five in Yellowhammer. The assayer’s wife, the proprietress of the Lucky Strike Hotel, and a laundress whose washtub panned out an ounce of dust a day. These were the permanent feminines; the remaining two were the Spangler Sisters, Misses Fanchon and Erma, of the Transcontinental Comedy Company, then playing in repertoire at the (improvised) Empire Theatre. But of children there were none. Sometimes Miss Fanchon enacted with spirit and address the part of robustious childhood; but between her delineation and the visions of adolescence that the fancy offered as eligible recipients of Cherokee’s holiday stores there seemed to be fixed a gulf.
Christmas would come on Thursday. On Tuesday morning Trinidad, instead of going to work, sought the Judge at the Lucky Strike Hotel.
“It’ll be a disgrace to Yellowhammer,” said Trinidad, “if it throws Cherokee down on his Christmas tree blowout. You might say that that man made this town. For one, I’m goin’ to see what can be done to give Santa Claus a square deal.”
“My co-operation,” said the Judge, “would be gladly forthcoming. I am indebted to Cherokee for past favours. But, I do not see–I have heretofore regarded the absence of children rather as a luxury–but in this instance–still, I do not see–”
“Look at me,” said Trinidad, “and you’ll see old Ways and Means with the fur on. I’m goin’ to hitch up a team and rustle a load of kids for Cherokee’s Santa Claus act, if I have to rob an orphan asylum.”
“Eureka!” cried the Judge, enthusiastically.
“No, you didn’t,” said Trinidad, decidedly. “I found it myself. I learned about that Latin word at school.”
“I will accompany you,” declared the Judge, waving his cane. “Perhaps such eloquence and gift of language as I possess will be of benefit in persuading our young friends to lend themselves to our project.”
Within an hour Yellowhammer was acquainted with the scheme of Trinidad and the Judge, and approved it. Citizens who knew of families with offspring within a forty-mile radius of Yellowhammer came forward and contributed their information. Trinidad made careful notes of all such, and then hastened to secure a vehicle and team.
The first stop scheduled was at a double log-house fifteen miles out from Yellowhammer. A man opened the door at Trinidad’s hail, and then came down and leaned upon the rickety gate. The doorway was filled with a close mass of youngsters, some ragged, all full of curiosity and health.
“It’s this way,” explained Trinidad. “We’re from Yellowhammer, and we come kidnappin’ in a gentle kind of a way. One of our leading citizens is stung with the Santa Claus affliction, and he’s due in town to-morrow with half the folderols that’s painted red and made in Germany. The youngest kid we got in Yellowhammer packs a forty-five and a safety razor. Consequently we’re mighty shy on anybody to say ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ when we light the candles on the Christmas tree. Now, partner, if you’ll loan us a few kids we guarantee to return ’em safe and sound on Christmas Day. And they’ll come back loaded down with a good time and Swiss Family Robinsons and cornucopias and red drums and similar testimonials. What do you say?”
“In other words,” said the Judge, “we have discovered for the first time in our embryonic but progressive little city the inconveniences of the absence of adolescence. The season of the year having approximately arrived during which it is a custom to bestow frivolous but often appreciated gifts upon the young and tender–”
“I understand,” said the parent, packing his pipe with a forefinger. “I guess I needn’t detain you gentlemen. Me and the old woman have got seven kids, so to speak; and, runnin’ my mind over the bunch, I don’t appear to hit upon none that we could spare for you to take over to your doin’s. The old woman has got some popcorn candy and rag dolls hid in the clothes chest, and we allow to give Christmas a little whirl of our own in a insignificant sort of style. No, I couldn’t, with any degree of avidity, seem to fall in with the idea of lettin’ none of ’em go. Thank you kindly, gentlemen.”
Down the slope they drove and up another foothill to the ranch-house of Wiley Wilson. Trinidad recited his appeal and the Judge boomed out his ponderous antiphony. Mrs. Wiley gathered her two rosy-cheeked youngsters close to her skirts and did not smile until she had seen Wiley laugh and shake his head. Again a refusal.
Trinidad and the Judge vainly exhausted more than half their list before twilight set in among the hills. They spent the night at a stage road hostelry, and set out again early the next morning. The wagon had not acquired a single passenger.
“It’s creepin’ upon my faculties,” remarked Trinidad, “that borrowin’ kids at Christmas is somethin’ like tryin’ to steal butter from a man that’s got hot pancakes a-comin’.”
“It is undoubtedly an indisputable fact,” said the Judge, “that the–ah–family ties seem to be more coherent and assertive at that period of the year.”
On the day before Christmas they drove thirty miles, making four fruitless halts and appeals. Everywhere they found “kids” at a premium.
The sun was low when the wife of a section boss on a lonely railroad huddled her unavailable progeny behind her and said: “There’s a woman that’s just took charge of the railroad eatin’ house down at Granite Junction. I hear she’s got a little boy. Maybe she might let him go.”
Trinidad pulled up his mules at Granite Junction at five o’clock in the afternoon. The train had just departed with its load of fed and appeased passengers.
On the steps of the eating house they found a thin and glowering boy of ten smoking a cigarette. The dining-room had been left in chaos by the peripatetic appetites. A youngish woman reclined, exhausted, in a chair. Her face wore sharp lines of worry. She had once possessed a certain style of beauty that would never wholly leave her and would never wholly return. Trinidad set forth his mission.
“I’d count it a mercy if you’d take Bobby for a while,” she said, wearily. “I’m on the go from morning till night, and I don’t have time to ‘tend to him. He’s learning bad habits from the men. It’ll be the only chance he’ll have to get any Christmas.”
The men went outside and conferred with Bobby. Trinidad pictured the glories of the Christmas tree and presents in lively colours.
“And, moreover, my young friend,” added the Judge, “Santa Claus himself will personally distribute the offerings that will typify the gifts conveyed by the shepherds of Bethlehem to–”
“Aw, come off,” said the boy, squinting his small eyes. “I ain’t no kid. There ain’t any Santa Claus. It’s your folks that buys toys and sneaks ’em in when you’re asleep. And they make marks in the soot in the chimney with the tongs to look like Santa’s sleigh tracks.”
“That might be so,” argued Trinidad, “but Christmas trees ain’t no fairy tale. This one’s goin’ to look like the ten-cent store in Albuquerque, all strung up in a redwood. There’s tops and drums and Noah’s arks and–”
“Oh, rats!” said Bobby, wearily. “I cut them out long ago. I’d like to have a rifle–not a target one–a real one, to shoot wildcats with; but I guess you won’t have any of them on your old tree.”
“Well, I can’t say for sure,” said Trinidad diplomatically; “it might be. You go along with us and see.”
The hope thus held out, though faint, won the boy’s hesitating consent to go. With this solitary beneficiary for Cherokee’s holiday bounty, the canvassers spun along the homeward road.
In Yellowhammer the empty storeroom had been transformed into what might have passed as the bower of an Arizona fairy. The ladies had done their work well. A tall Christmas tree, covered to the topmost branch with candles, spangles, and toys sufficient for more than a score of children, stood in the centre of the floor. Near sunset anxious eyes had begun to scan the street for the returning team of the child-providers. At noon that day Cherokee had dashed into town with his new sleigh piled high with bundles and boxes and bales of all sizes and shapes. So intent was he upon the arrangements for his altruistic plans that the dearth of children did not receive his notice. No one gave away the humiliating state of Yellowhammer, for the efforts of Trinidad and the Judge were expected to supply the deficiency.
When the sun went down Cherokee, with many wings and arch grins on his seasoned face, went into retirement with the bundle containing the Santa Claus raiment and a pack containing special and undisclosed gifts.
“When the kids are rounded up,” he instructed the volunteer arrangement committee, “light up the candles on the tree and set ’em to playin’ ‘Pussy Wants a Corner’ and ‘King William.’ When they get good and at it, why–old Santa’ll slide in the door. I reckon there’ll be plenty of gifts to go ’round.”
The ladies were flitting about the tree, giving it final touches that were never final. The Spangled Sisters were there in costume as Lady Violet de Vere and Marie, the maid, in their new drama, “The Miner’s Bride.” The theatre did not open until nine, and they were welcome assistants of the Christmas tree committee. Every minute heads would pop out the door to look and listen for the approach of Trinidad’s team. And now this became an anxious function, for night had fallen and it would soon be necessary to light the candles on the tree, and Cherokee was apt to make an irruption at any time in his Kriss Kringle garb.
At length the wagon of the child “rustlers” rattled down the street to the door. The ladies, with little screams of excitement, flew to the lighting of the candles. The men of Yellowhammer passed in and out restlessly or stood about the room in embarrassed groups.
Trinidad and the Judge, bearing the marks of protracted travel, entered, conducting between them a single impish boy, who stared with sullen, pessimistic eyes at the gaudy tree.
“Where are the other children?” asked the assayer’s wife, the acknowledged leader of all social functions.
“Ma’am,” said Trinidad with a sigh, “prospectin’ for kids at Christmas time is like huntin’ in a limestone for silver. This parental business is one that I haven’t no chance to comprehend. It seems that fathers and mothers are willin’ for their offsprings to be drownded, stole, fed on poison oak, and et by catamounts 364 days in the year; but on Christmas Day they insists on enjoyin’ the exclusive mortification of their company. This here young biped, ma’am, is all that washes out of our two days’ manoeuvres.”
“Oh, the sweet little boy!” cooed Miss Erma, trailing her De Vere robes to centre of stage.
“Aw, shut up,” said Bobby, with a scowl. “Who’s a kid? You ain’t, you bet.”
“Fresh brat!” breathed Miss Erma, beneath her enamelled smile.
“We done the best we could,” said Trinidad. “It’s tough on Cherokee, but it can’t be helped.”
Then the door opened and Cherokee entered in the conventional dress of Saint Nick. A white rippling beard and flowing hair covered his face almost to his dark and shining eyes. Over his shoulder he carried a pack.
No one stirred as he came in. Even the Spangler Sisters ceased their coquettish poses and stared curiously at the tall figure. Bobby stood with his hands in his pockets gazing gloomily at the effeminate and childish tree. Cherokee put down his pack and looked wonderingly about the room. Perhaps he fancied that a bevy of eager children were being herded somewhere, to be loosed upon his entrance. He went up to Bobby and extended his red-mittened hand.
“Merry Christmas, little boy,” said Cherokee. “Anything on the tree you want they’ll get it down for you. Won’t you shake hands with Santa Claus?”
“There ain’t any Santa Claus,” whined the boy. “You’ve got old false billy goat’s whiskers on your face. I ain’t no kid. What do I want with dolls and tin horses? The driver said you’d have a rifle, and you haven’t. I want to go home.”
Trinidad stepped into the breach. He shook Cherokee’s hand in warm greeting.
“I’m sorry, Cherokee,” he explained. “There never was a kid in Yellowhammer. We tried to rustle a bunch of ’em for your swaree, but this sardine was all we could catch. He’s a atheist, and he don’t believe in Santa Claus. It’s a shame for you to be out all this truck. But me and the Judge was sure we could round up a wagonful of candidates for your gimcracks.”
“That’s all right,” said Cherokee gravely. “The expense don’t amount to nothin’ worth mentionin’. We can dump the stuff down a shaft or throw it away. I don’t know what I was thinkin’ about; but it never occurred to my cogitations that there wasn’t any kids in Yellowhammer.”
Meanwhile the company had relaxed into a hollow but praiseworthy imitation of a pleasure gathering.
Bobby had retreated to a distant chair, and was coldly regarding the scene with ennui plastered thick upon him. Cherokee, lingering with his original idea, went over and sat beside him.
“Where do you live, little boy?” he asked respectfully.
“Granite Junction,” said Bobby without emphasis.
The room was warm. Cherokee took off his cap, and then removed his beard and wig.
“Say!” exclaimed Bobby, with a show of interest, “I know your mug, all right.”
“Did you ever see me before?” asked Cherokee.
“I don’t know; but I’ve seen your picture lots of times.”
The boy hesitated. “On the bureau at home,” he answered.
“Let’s have your name, if you please, buddy.”
“Robert Lumsden. The picture belongs to my mother. She puts it under her pillow of nights. And once I saw her kiss it. I wouldn’t. But women are that way.”
Cherokee rose and beckoned to Trinidad.
“Keep this boy by you till I come back,” he said. “I’m goin’ to shed these Christmas duds, and hitch up my sleigh. I’m goin’ to take this kid home.”
“Well, infidel,” said Trinidad, taking Cherokee’s vacant chair, “and so you are too superannuated and effete to yearn for such mockeries as candy and toys, it seems.”
“I don’t like you,” said Bobby, with acrimony. “You said there would be a rifle. A fellow can’t even smoke. I wish I was at home.”
Cherokee drove his sleigh to the door, and they lifted Bobby in beside him. The team of fine horses sprang away prancingly over the hard snow. Cherokee had on his $500 overcoat of baby sealskin. The laprobe that he drew about them was as warm as velvet.
Bobby slipped a cigarette from his pocket and was trying to snap a match.
“Throw that cigarette away,” said Cherokee, in a quiet but new voice.
Bobby hesitated, and then dropped the cylinder overboard.
“Throw the box, too,” commanded the new voice.
More reluctantly the boy obeyed.
“Say,” said Bobby, presently, “I like you. I don’t know why. Nobody never made me do anything I didn’t want to do before.”
“Tell me, kid,” said Cherokee, not using his new voice, “are you sure your mother kissed that picture that looks like me?”
“Dead sure. I seen her do it.”
“Didn’t you remark somethin’ a while ago about wanting a rifle?”
“You bet I did. Will you get me one?”
Cherokee took out his watch.
“Half-past nine. We’ll hit the Junction plumb on time with Christmas Day. Are you cold? Sit closer, son.”
Categories: Thursday Lit