The Handkerchief Angel
Her home sat on one hundred and sixty acres west of the Arizona border town of Naco. It was a right enough place set on a bend of the San Pedro River. Years of backbreaking toil had just begun to pay off.
The house wasn't much to look at, dun-colored adobe blocks with a narrow covered porch running the length of the front, but it was solid, keeping the heat out in summer and the cold out in winter. It had a stone fireplace and a big cook stove brought up from Sonora. A real glass window let in light and views of the surrounding countryside. Though the floor was only dirt, it was hard packed and easily swept. A barn constructed of rough-milled lumber, a chicken coop and several corrals held just enough stock to keep the family from starving, for the time being.
What the woman loved most about the ranch was that it sat on so lovely a spot. The river was a wild living thing, unpredictable – a rushing maelstrom in monsoon season, a mere stream during the dry months, yet never failing to provide enough water for survival. The San Pedro was the only true constant in her life and the sound of it in the night brought comfort and a sense of peace
Beneath the bowers and nodding branches of cottonwoods and willows was her private chapel. Sheltering and sustaining her, as well as the myriad animals and birds which thrived there, the river and its surrounds remained a world within a world and she loved it beyond measure. The thought she might have to pull up stakes and leave deviled her.
Weeks earlier her husband of fifteen years had ridden off with his cronies into Mexico never to return. He told her they went to purchase cattle, but she knew better. Her husband was easily led and easily persuaded and that was one of the reasons she had married him. As it turned out, he was too easy on the going and not enough on the staying. Caught rustling, he and his companions were hung on the spot, frontier justice at its quickest and most severe. The woman was left with a passel of children, no cash money and little reason to think her situation would improve. And Christmas was coming.
Cold deepened to bone chilling, making even the easiest chore a burden. Fingers froze at the milking and the cow balked and kicked in displeasure. Her milk slowed to a trickle, barely enough for the baby. Gathering and chopping wood kept her two oldest sons busy and warm and though they complained a bit, even they would rather work than be cold in the night.
Three days before Christmas and near dusk a stranger appeared. Mounted on a fine bay mare and well-dressed, he spoke with a soft southern drawl and his manners were those of a gentleman as he tipped the brim of his hat in greeting.
"Beg your pardon, ma'am, but I am in need of shelter for the night. It seems I misjudged the cold and am ill prepared to spend the night out."
He looked prepared to her with his fine heavy coat, muffler wrapped about his throat and black leather gloves, but maybe gentlemen weren't meant to sleep out-of-doors. The woman stood on the porch, cold wind blowing her full skirts about her as she shooed the curious children back into the house. She was wary.
When she did not reply, the stranger continued, "I would be most willing to pay for accommodations. Even your barn would suffice." He coughed. It was deep and moist and doubled him over in the saddle and when his gaze once again met hers, the woman saw he was ill. Fair skinned with a pale thick mustache, he sported a smudge of bright color on each high cheekbone, and his eyes watered from the effort of his cough. Beneath the heavy clothing, he shivered.
"I have children to think of. Can't have a sick man in the house, but you can stay in the barn. I'll fix a pallet."
"I am obliged to you, ma'am." He dismounted. Leading his horse, he followed her into the barn.
While the woman forked fresh hay down from the loft the stranger unsaddled the mare and led her to a stall. A gelding in the adjacent enclosure nickered in recognition.
"If your husband or one of your sons could curry my animal, perhaps give her some oats, I would pay for that as well."
As she stood silently appraising him, the man reached into a pocket and removed several bills. "Would five dollars be enough for the night? I will add an extra dollar for my horse's care."
She accepted the money, folded it and shoved it into the pocket of her apron. "That's plenty. I'll send my boy out with some blankets. He'll care for your mare. No oats, but she'll be fed best we can. I'll be out in a bit with some supper."
By the time she returned with his dinner the stranger lay atop one of the blankets, curled onto his side, shivering and coughing. Another blanket was wrapped loosely around him. A black Stetson hung on a peg near his horse and his hair was plastered to his scalp with sweat.
Kneeling down, the woman set the supper plate aside and drew the lantern near. Something in her, the instincts of motherhood perhaps, caused her to ignore her fear of illness. Reaching out, she laid a hand against his forehead. He burned with fever and she'd seen enough fevers to know leaving him out in the cold would kill him outright, and that, as a Christian woman, she could not do.
She got to her feet and ran to the house.
The bedroom she had shared with her husband and the large common area were the only rooms in the house. The children slept in the loft above. If she kept the children away from the sick man she should be able to bring him inside without fear. Besides, the stranger was all the children were talking about. Who was he? Where did he come from? The younger children even thought he could be Santa Claus.
Tossing the quilt back from the bed and pulling her husband's pillow over on top of hers, she opened the chest at the foot of the bed and grabbed out a faded army blanket.
"Seth, Josh, come with me. We're bringing the stranger indoors."
The boys exchanged surprised looks, but were quick to obey. Shrugging into their coats they followed their mother out to the barn.
Barely conscious, the man somehow made it to his feet and between the two strapping boys, into the house. They sat him on the bed where the woman removed his heavy outer coat as well as the frock coat he wore beneath. The high-topped black riding boots followed.
The boys were hard put to contain their excitement at the sight of the two Colt pistols the man wore. One hung in a shoulder holster on the left side; nickel-plated and ivory-gripped. On the right hip he carried another nickel-plated beauty.
"Gosh, Ma, he must be a gunfighter!" the older boy exclaimed.
"Hasta be. Why else would he be wearin' guns like those?" His brother, equally captivated by the weapons, made the mistake of reaching out to touch the nearest.
His mother slapped the offending hand away as she went about unbuckling the holsters. Rolling the pistols up within their leather covers she placed them high on a shelf on the opposite side of the room.
"Aw, Ma, we won't touch 'em. We promise." Seth crossed his heart. His brother did like-wise.
"It's not you I'm worried about. It's him. Not that he looks to be much of a threat right now."
Indeed, the stranger was as far from being a threat as the woman was from being rich. His breathing was labored with every breath audible. Every few moments, like clockwork, he coughed.
Issuing instructions to the older children she went about seeing what she could do for the suffering man. First she got some water into him. Then she attempted to cool the fever with cold cloths laid across his forehead. Food was out of the question for now. Broth tomorrow if he survived the night.
As she bathed his hot face with the cool rag he opened his eyes and looked at her. She knew what he saw - a work and care worn woman, young, but old before her time.
"What's wrong with you, mister?" Twice she repeated the question, his senses too dulled by fever to comprehend.
His answer brought her little relief. "Consumption. I'll not die on you, ma'am."
As she sat at his bedside she thought what a shame a man so young was dying. Consumption was a heartless, indiscriminant killer, but who was he and what was his business?
The next day, miraculously, he was better. She got some broth into him and some information from him, but precious little. He was from Tombstone,
and he was a gambler. Sorry the guns had frightened her, he claimed they were essential to his job. He also told her his name was John Holliday. To her that meant nothing, only a face now with a name put to it, a nice face and a nice name.
"Won't your family be missin' you?"
His response was a whisper. "No family, ma'am."
With the stranger in the house she lost track of the days. Christmas loomed just around the corner. Giving Seth and Josh the six dollars their visitor had paid for his room and board, she sent the boys into Naco with a list of things to buy. They were not to deviate from the list. Six dollars was a great deal of money, but it wouldn't go nearly far enough unless the list was followed exactly. They would have a Christmas of sorts, but Christmas they would have.
She got the girls to making decorations from bits and scraps of paper and ribbon she'd accumulated over the year. When Seth returned she had him cut stars from the peach cans she'd saved, and sent Josh out to find something suitable for a tree. Had they lived in the mountains there might have been a real tree for Christmas, one smelling of pine and cold and outdoors, one of childhood memories, long past now, but still wrenchingly vivid to the woman.
While preparations were made, John Holliday slept, rested and ate what was provided, either hot broth or thin unsweetened cereal. Both warmed his belly
and helped him regain his strength. By the next morning he was able to sit up in bed and drink his coffee unaided. His fever had broken in the night and his cough was much improved.
The children peeked shyly into the bedroom, one after another. It wasn't long before the boldest, six year old Victoria, crept past the doorway, the decorations she'd made clutched in one small hand. She held them out and when he smiled and exclaimed how pretty they were, she smiled back.
Soon his bedroom became the center of all activities. Pieces of this and that littered the bed and floor. Children sat on stools or on the small rag rug, and little Victoria, ever brave, sat on the very edge of the bed.
Having had Seth bring his saddlebags into the house, John searched through them, retrieving all manner of interesting items that could be fashioned into Christmas decorations or given as small gifts. Included in the mix were half a dozen fine white cotton handkerchiefs, a red paisley print bandana and a tin box containing sugar-dusted lemon drops which Holliday used to sooth his perpetually sore throat.
The woman shooed the youngsters from the room. "Our guest needs his rest. We tolerate no relapses in this house!" This declaration came with a smile; her children hadn't been as happy in ages.
Christmas Eve and the children sat on the floor around John's bed in rapt attention as he wove a story, a story of the steadfast tin soldier. What a glorious weaver of fantasy he was. With a voice full of melody, deep and rich, he interjected feelings and emotions into the words, transforming them into pictures bright with color and life. The hands in his lap were never idle, but animated, as he gestured and pointed and traced as he spoke. When he finished, the children clapped, all but one, who thought the story too sad.
"Why did the tin soldier have to die?" Victoria wept into her mother's arms.
"It was only a story. He didn't really die."
The child wiped hot tears on her nightgown sleeve and smiled into her mother's face. "Really? He didn't die?"
The tree was brought into the house. It wasn't much to look at, just the top of a small cottonwood. The boy wanted to use a small soapberry since it came complete with berries attached which, if you had a good imagination, resembled tiny ornaments. With little sisters about who put everything into their mouths, the bush, with its attractive but poisonous fruit, was an idea the boy quickly put to rest. They would make do with the cottonwood. Strips of faded green calico wrapped the tree's trunkand larger branches, and if one didn't look too closely, the effect was that of a tree green with life if not leaves.
John Holliday sat in the rocker with the younger children piled around his legs, laughing and clapping over each ornament or decoration as it was fastened
into place. The tree delighted the eyes, festooned as it was with tin stars reflecting the bright light from the fire in the hearth, throwing off reds and golds and yellows. Wind currents set the stars to spinning and the rainbows of color danced and swirled. Bows constructed of bright fabric strips added more interest as did paper cutouts of flowers and animals. On top of the tree was set an angel, though little Victoria thought it was the ballerina from the steadfast tin soldier story. Made from several of Holliday's white handkerchiefs, its eyes, nose and lips embroidered with a mother's loving touch, the angel provided the perfect finishing touch.
All that remained was the telling of the Christmas story, of Mary and Joseph and the Baby. The woman wanted John to tell it, he had such a way with words, but he declined. There was a sadness about him that came on suddenly and the woman did not press him. Instead she sat on the stool in the middle of the room, the children gathered about, each savoring one last lemon drop, their silence total. She began.
During the night snow fell and remained, thick and white, dazzling in the bright morning sun. Before noon it would melt, but it served its purpose by welcoming the day with its fragile beauty. Each child awoke to find a gift beneath the tree and each child was amazed Santa Claus had somehow gotten through the snow to make his deliveries.
Breakfast was hearty and lingered over, but Christmas or not there were still chores to be done. Presents were put aside.
John slept until nearly supper and several times the woman was concerned enough to check on him. He was free of fever and seemed comfortable yet how he could sleep through the commotion of five children not ten feet from his bed was curious to her. Sleep he did and when he woke he was all the better for it. He felt well enough to walk to the barn and check on his horse.
The woman stood at the stove stirring a pot of stew for the evening meal, checking every so often on the biscuits browning inside. She was flushed from the heat and her hair had come loose from its fastenings to curl about her face.
John Holliday stepped through the kitchen door, brushing the few errant flakes of snow from his shoulders.
"You'll catch your death of cold," she scolded, and the words caught in her throat, but he smiled. No offense had been taken. In fact, he looked at her as no man had looked at her in a long time. Already flushed from the stove's heat, she felt an unaccustomed blush rise to her face. He reached a hand out, lifting a tendril of hair back from her cheek. The gesture was tender and familiar, too familiar, but she couldn't bring herself to object.
Almost as if he realized what he had done, Holliday pulled back his hand. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. I hope you will accept my apology."
Before she could reply he walked away, over to the rocker where he sat down. Within moments there was one child on his lap and another hanging onto his arm. Stories made short work of the hours before bedtime and too soon it was again morning.
Breakfast over, John accepted a final cup of coffee before walking into the bedroom. The time had come for his departure.
The door stood ajar and the woman found herself glancing into the room.
He removed his weapons off the high shelf and laid them on the bed. Shrugging into the shoulder harness he checked the pistol and eased it into the holster. He buckled the second weapon around his waist and she noticed how the familiar weight of the weapons settled into place and how they fitted the man so perfectly. He donned the frock coat and then the heavy winter one. The saddlebags he slung over one shoulder.
She turned away then lest he see her and waited for him near the outside door.
Long strides brought him quickly to where she stood. He reached out for her hand.
Embarrassed at the roughness of her skin, the dry, cracked knuckles, yet she held her hand out to him. He pressed a number of folded bills into it then closed both his hands warmly around hers.
Without as much as a glance at the money she shook her head. "You don't owe me more. You paid for your room and board…more than paid."
"Money means little to me. I'd be pleased if you'd take it for the children. You didn't say, but since I never saw your husband I assume he's dead. For that I am truly sorry, but accept this. Consider it a Christmas gift."
Still she wanted to say no, but when he said it was for the children… What right did she have to keep them from being hungry one less day? Nodding, she stuffed the bills into her pocket.
The woman and her children stood on the porch. The snow was gone and the day shone bright and sunny, but cold. For an instant she wondered if he would be warm enough.
The mare waited, stomping and snorting in anticipation. Draping the saddlebags across the horse's back and fastening them down, John Holliday swung up into the saddle.
"Ma'am," he began, his voice so soft the woman strained to catch the words, "I want to thank you and the children for a fine Christmas. I can't remember when I've had as good…. No, that's not true. The Christmas which came closest I was no older than your Seth. It was the last year my mother was alive."
Looking off for a moment he swallowed hard, as if attempting to keep his emotions under control. "I thank you all." Tipping his hat he turned the mare and nudged her into a trot.
Not until he disappeared from sight did the children seek out the warmth of the house. Alone on the porch the woman reached into her pocket and drew out the bills he'd handed her. She had yet to count them and when she did she thought to call out to him, to bring him back, though he was long gone. In her hand lay ten crumpled twenty dollar bills.
When his mother was slow coming in from the cold, Seth sought her out. She stood, money gripped within her white fingers. When she noticed the boy, she held the bills out to him. "Do you believe in angels?"
"No, Ma, why? Do you?"
She nodded. "For the first time in my life."