Her dead husband sent "Christmas Spirit" to be a matchmaker.
Christmas Spirit Visits the Wild, Wild West
Down in the old, wild west, there are many tales.
Some have cowboys in them;
others are of saloon girls, peddlers, or preachers.
But none I’ve ever read tell the tale of the Christmas Spirit
and his dealings in the town of Cedar Grove.
That year, back in 1852, the Christmas Spirit flew in on the chilly December winds. He rode the winds' tail and dropped off to stay a while in that little town in New Mexico.
I suppose there are those who would claim it was the water trough that drew his curiosity. A leftover from the days when the saloon was going strong, the bathtub was imported from Paris, France, and wore a fiery dragon as its spigot. Two fish functioned for faucets. But the water trough of Cedar Grove no longer lived inside the hotel where it had once warmed and cleaned the bodies of miners, outlaws, and madams. Instead, it held the water for every horse whose thirst needed quenching.
The Christmas Spirit didn’t drink, neither icy spring water nor liquor, nor even the creamy Hereford milk produced nearby. It only sat atop the dragon’s head and surveyed the dusty, dying town.
Perhaps it watched old Marti, the town drunk who parked himself, even on a cold day, in the dust of the prairie streets. The man's rheumy, reddened eyes were streaked with grime and desolation, his hand outstretched for a bit of coin in the hopes that he could drink each night away.
Or maybe, one might think that the Christmas Spirit studied Sebastian, the greedy banker, who collected his pound of flesh whether a victim offered it or not. Sebastian, the unmarried, Sebastian, the unloved -- was the pillar of the community as long as Christian virtue was not discussed.
I suppose the Christmas Spirit might have noticed Samuel, the hat seller, who kept his hand across his pocket every hour of the day, in case someone should attempt to remove the coin he hid there for his afternoon cup of soup. It didn’t matter, of course, that Samuel had, underneath his bedroom floor, a loose board with more coins than he could ever spend on soup or basic necessities. Ah, if only Samuel knew what the Christmas Spirit knew, that he would die that year, a dry-existenced man whose avarice availed no one with either inheritance or charity for his silly coins would go unfound for centuries, lying in the dust.
But Christmas Spirit, in truth, hadn't come for them. As a rule, he ignored fools and brought a Christmas gift to the more deserving souls, helping where he could. And this time, he had come for Frieda Solace, the widow lady who sat in the window of her boardinghouse, watching the comings and goings of the town and weeping with the loneliness of her nights.
The dragon on the water trough gave Christmas Spirit a good seat from which he could watch the lady’s sad eyes, staring out into the night. He heard her prayers and the dreams she wished upon each shooting star. He listened as she recollected and mourned her husband, Charlie, dead these many years. He observed her sorrow, and he spoke again with his good friend, the angel who’d urged him on this special trip.
The bells of St. Anthony chimed that Sunday morning just as usual, and Frieda Solace, as she did every day, prepared her toilette. Her hand-me-down dress was a bit faded, but it was still clean and well kept. Her old shoes, carefully polished to hide the scuffs and bald spots from years of wearing, were placed on her feet with a slight trepidation, for the heel was loosening. She would take them to the cobbler again for another nail. That pair of shoes had served her for many years and must continue serving for many more.
Frieda picked up her gloves. They, too were wearing. The material was grayed, but it had once been good. She was not at all ashamed of them. She took note that the seams were fraying again. After church she would once again take up needle and thread.
She did not put the gloves on but carried them in her hand as she walked down the long, polished stairs of the boardinghouse. At the bottom, she met with several other widow ladies. She smiled and exchanged polite greetings. She had seen them all at breakfast. She would dine with them again at dinner. She would sit with them throughout the evening until the stars retired each one of them to their separate bedrooms. Frieda was not fond of the ladies, but still she spent time in their company. Such was the lonely fate of a widow in the wild west.
The ladies passed through the heavy, oak wood door. A blast of winter wind struck at their skirts, their legs, and their threadbare coats. They huddled closer as a group. If any of the townsfolk had passed at that moment, the individual identities of each lady would not have been named. They were simply, "the widow ladies" in the Boardinghouse on Main Street.
It was a normal December, Sunday morning. The wind was not yet fierce enough to bring forth Christmas snows, although the yuletide was already hanging its cheer on the faces of those with kin and child. The widow ladies were united in having neither.
Christmas Spirit, "tsked" as he examined the group of widows. Once again he was reminded of the shortness of human life, and the passing of any moment without joy was a great bewilderment to him. Those who chose to travel their life with money as their sail like Sebastian and Samuel, brought the sprite much sadness, but he would never interfere. People who, instead, chose opium or heavy drinking, he raised no finger to aid, but the ones like these ladies, who suffered only from loneliness, at them Christmas Spirit always shook his head, for love was abundant and free for the taking.
The sprite's lip snarled as Mabel Ann Leafer, the first of the widow ladies, passed by. She was always first, pushing her way to the front, demanding her fair share of everything, even when fair might not include her. She had driven her husband to his death. He was much happier upstairs in heaven than he’d ever been in life, at least since he’d married the cantankerous Mabel Ann.
Christmas Spirit ranked the widow, Mabel Ann, in the very same strata as Sebastian and Samuel. She didn’t do a piece of good for the earthly, and her prayers were only parcels of complaints. Even God wasn’t eager to see her day of death.
Christmas Spirit ached to give Mabel Ann a fair reward for her selfish contrariness, but that wasn’t his task, nor would heaven’s angels smile upon him if he took judgment into his own hands. He sighed and far more pleasantly surveyed the other three ladies.
Sarah Hofer was in the middle of the group. She was the eldest. Christmas Spirit observed her stiff carriage, the way her nose pinched at the pain of every step. She had lived a full life, burying five strong sons and a beloved husband. She’d lingered on Earth only because she must. She was eager to join her departed kin. Christmas Spirit nodded at the whispers of the angels he heard all around him.
“Yes, I will grace her with a gentle death,” he whispered back, and he watched sadly as the elderly woman hobbled along, her bony hand clutching Frieda’s arm with a frightened and unsteady grip.
Charlene Pestle was on the other side of the elderly Sarah. Her coat was ragged-fringed. The the buttons were unmatched but sturdily mounted. She, like Frieda Solace, was still a beautiful woman, only slightly past her prime. Yet, she was forced by need to service the unpleasant Mabel Ann Leafer. Charlene’s young husband had been taken by a fever several years back. Her little baby girl died a year later from Scarlet Fever. Destitute, Charlene had grasped at the employment of the widow, but her tears were numerous, and not all of them were for the loss of her child and husband.
Charlene’s youthful hands shook from cold because she no longer had any mittens or gloves. Of course, Mabel Anne Leafer could have bought her new ones or given her a pair of old ones, but she would never think to do such a kindness.
Christmas Spirit’s nose wrinkled up with anger. But then he smoothed it out after whispering to the angels. Today was not Charlene's day, but things would change. A stranger to the town, a new doctor -- an older man, but good-natured and kind -- would take poor Charlene for his bride before the year had passed.
Christmas Spirit smiled and turned to stare at the one he’d come to serve. Sweet Frieda Solace, the sixteen-year-old bride of Charlie Solace -- he who was beloved of the angels. It was Charlie who had steered him in this direction. He had asked him to work a Christmas miracle. The sprite nodded his head, eager to get busy on it.
Barkley, the funeral director, passed by and tipped his hat at the ladies. Christmas Spirit considered him, but shook his head when the man’s wife came bristling out with their seven children.
Farmer Smith drove by with a fine team of black geldings. Christmas Spirit measured him but recalled that he also had a wife. She was merely visiting her sister’s in a town not twenty miles away.
The sprite sighed. Matchmaking wasn’t one of his fortés. He took a moment to argue with the angels about his lack of ability, but he knew he was committed. He must find a husband for Frieda. And Charlie expected it before Christmas.
The sprite watched as the ladies entered the church. He followed behind, keeping a keen eye out for suitable partners. Not Henry Colburn who took a pew, five benches back from the ladies -- he drank too much. Stephen Kelly, sitting in the back row, would die in a shootout before New Years. He certainly wouldn't do.
Christmas Spirit sighed. Kelly O’Reilly, busy flirting with one of the town’s unmarried ladies, claimed to be single, but he had a wife in three different states. Then there was the new schoolteacher, a shy-faced petite man with a frame so thin, the children said they could see through him.
Hopping up to the top of the church balcony, the sprite stared down at the congregation. His eyes once more studied Frieda. She was staring at Reverend Simons. But, of course, she would; the man had stood up to deliver the sermon. Christmas Spirit continued his search, and once again came up with no one but the new schoolteacher who was not only a skinny, short man, but also a man a good five years younger than the tall, rather hefty Frieda.
“Charlie, maybe this isn’t meant to be,” Christmas Spirit whispered up to heaven.
Just then, the door flew open as the wind carried it bangingly against the wall. A stranger walked in, heaved at the door and forced it closed. Christmas Spirit looked him over. The man was just the right age for Frieda, graying at the side locks, a sturdy, decent face, wrinkled from sun and weather. The sprite shot a smile upstairs, and rubbed his hands together. Ah, things were looking better.
The stranger walked forward, and ignoring the stares of the congregation, he slipped into the last pew. Christmas Spirit started down toward him.
The stranger took off his hat, kicked his feet forward and tugged at his gun belt. That last stopped the sprite. Charlie was having a say about the guns. The sprite closed his eyes and listened. When he opened them, he took another look and wondered about the shininess of the man’s gun.
Meanwhile, Reverend Simon was passing around the plate. Frieda blushed when her hand touched his. She smiled at him, and Christmas saw where her heart was slowly sliding.
Several carols were sung. Frieda, apparently, didn’t need the words. Her eyes never left the fine figure of Reverend Simon. The man did sing with a pleasant voice, the sprite had to admit. The reverend's words were clear and ringing, his tenor, polished and first-rate.
Christmas noticed that the reverend's eyes often flitted to Frieda's. Whatever stirrings were happening between them, it was mutual.
When the songs were finished, the offering plate passed back up to the altar, and the prayers all sent their way, the minister walked down the aisle so he could greet the congregation as they exited the church. Frieda’s eyes never left the man’s face, not until he was out of sight, and the others demanded her attention.
Christmas Spirit smiled because she'd watched the reverend just like he was a candy jar she couldn’t reach. “Hum,” said the sprite, and he petted his tiny beard, thinking the situation over. The stranger or the minister -- which would be the better choice? Although it was true that the reverend wasn’t married, was he free to choose Frieda to share his life? Wouldn’t he need a younger woman to help with the many church obligations?
Christmas Spirit studied the stranger. The man was searching through the congregation faces. His eyes lit on Peter Washin, the skinny schoolteacher. Then he stood up with the others and walked down the aisle, but his steps moved him closer to the one he was staring at.
“Peter,” the stranger called out so softly that no one heard, no one, except the Christmas Spirit and perhaps an angel or two.
Peter’s face blanched. It was obvious he was not delighted to see the other man, yet the two of them walked off together, ignoring the well wishes and outstretched hands of the friendly townsfolk.
Outside the church, people were clustered about, passing out invitations to Sunday chicken dinners, trading hellos and questions about the members of the family not present, praising new outfits, and collecting gossip.
Frieda Solace, behind Mabel Anne Leafer, waited patiently for her turn in line with the minister. The way Mabel was talking on and on, it was looking like Sunday would come and go before Frieda’d have her opportunity to shake the reverend’s hand and look blushingly into his eyes.
Christmas Spirit sent a gusty wind to blow away Mabel’s hankie. Because of that, she broke off her conversation and took a couple of steps sideways to chase down the hankie. The stranger picked it up, tipping his hat at her politely. Mabel blushed. Her conversation with the minister was suddenly forgotten. She stared up at the stranger and thanked him gushingly, her aged eyelashes flapping wildly.
Meanwhile, Frieda Solace moved up and took the minister’s hand. “That was such a lovely sermon, Reverend Simon,” she said.
He blushed slightly and stared down at her hand. His lashes fluttered a moment, as if he were trying to get a grip on his emotions. Only Christmas Spirit noticed it and nodded at one more confirmation.
“Is the minister okay for her, Charlie?” the sprite called out and listened for the soft voice of his friend, but there wasn’t time to hear a response. The stranger, having pulled away from the chatty and irritating Mabel Anne Leafer, drew his gun and aimed it at the schoolteacher.
“Oh, no,” cried Frieda Solace, as her eyes turned to see what had caused the loud gasps of everyone. Without thinking, she attempted to rush over to stop the fight. She struggled against the reverend’s arms, which were suddenly holding her and pushing her behind him.
“No! I have to stop them,” she cried.
The minister knew that Frieda's husband had been shot down in a gunfight. He’d spoken at her husband's funeral, in fact. He remembered as if it were last year, instead of years and years ago.
“No, my dear,” the minister told her. “You mustn’t interfere.”
“But . . .” was all the time Frieda had before a shot cracked the Sunday morning. Peter Washin was to have been the victim, but a stray wind sent Mabel’s hankie flying. It distracted the stranger, and the shot went wild.
Jim Calloway, the town sheriff, saved the day. He pulled his gun from his holster and with his other hand, took the stranger’s weapon.
“I was supposed to kill him, “ the man wept. “He didn’t marry my sister like he promised. He stood her up. . .”
As the sheriff escorted the stranger to jail, the schoolteacher fainted. That stopped all talk for a moment. Several women rushed to his aid, fanning him and holding smelling salts to his nose.
However, the silence ended quickly. In a moment, the front steps of the church were a beehive of noise. Everyone wanted to hear the schoolteacher’s story, although some were already casting stern glances at him, believing the worst.
In the end, the Peabodys took the schoolteacher away for some fattening up, and the clusters broke apart as everyone remembered that their dinners were waiting.
Mabel Anne, however, still sat in the corner where Charlene had led her. She was having one of her fainting spells, thoroughly enjoying telling Sarah how she’d almost been shot.
Still standing in the doorway of the chapel, the minister stared into Frieda's eyes. “I was so worried that you would be hurt,” he told her.
Frieda became aware that her hand was still in his. She withdrew it and blushed. Her eyes lowered and tiny droplets of dainty tears dribbled down her cheek. “Charlie was taken away that way,” she said haltingly.
“I remember, Frieda, but that’s been nigh on six years. You’ve grieved enough.”
Frieda’s lashes were dark with the moisture of her tears. The reverend was intoxicated with her lashes, her face, her closeness. Forgetting the eyes of the three waiting widows, he lifted up the porcelain-white face of the woman he loved.
“You know I’ve been waiting to court you, Frieda. How much longer must I wait?”
Frieda didn’t turn away from his eyes. She held his glance a moment, and then she sighed. “I’m too old.”
A gentle breeze was making its way down the streets of Cedar Grove. The church bell peeled, although no one was near. The ladies drew closer to each other, almost forgetting the drama of a moment ago. The tete a tete of Frieda and the minister was making them nervous. They chatted about the new dress of Mrs. Snow and began to wonder if they should slip away.
Christmas Spirit felt the winter breeze. His legs were itching to ride it, but he shooed it away. “Come back in a seven-day,” he said, and he blew it down the street.
Then he nodded his head and sent a brief gust towards the three old women. They turned their bodies to avoid the prairie dust the small flurry stirred up.
That was long enough for Reverend Simon to steal a kiss. It was a brief peck, no more. Already, the reverend teetered on the edge of sin for courting on a Sunday, but he knew that, sometimes, bare necessity drives a man into doing what he shouldn’t, and besides, he was all for taking advantage of providential opportunity.
Christmas Spirit was wild with pleasure; he sent a tumbleweed dancing down the center of the street. Then he screwed up his face and worked on a couple of clouds, darkening them until they grew heavy with approaching Christmas snow.
“Will you dine with me tonight, Frieda?” Reverend Simon ventured.
He lived in a small hotel room. It was an unusual place for a minister who’d been with a congregation for eleven years, but it had always suited him fine. The meals in the dining room were given to him in trade for services. A guest, a rarity for the good reverend, would not be a problem at all.
Frieda considered the offer. What would Charlie say? Frieda felt like she could almost hear him telling her to go. She nodded her head shyly.
“What was that all about?” demanded the petulant Mabel Anne Leafer after Frieda rejoined their group. Frieda watched as Reverend Simon ran off down the street on his way to the Boxers' house for a chicken dinner for which he was rather late.
“We were talking about Charlie,” Frieda said quietly.
Sharp eyes scanned her reddened cheeks, but tongues silenced. It was approaching the hour of two, and they would miss their boardinghouse dinner if they didn’t hurry. The ladies scurried on their way, Frieda and Charlene helping poor old Sarah, while Mabel Anne Leafer led the way.
Christmas Spirit reclaimed his position astride the dragon spigot of the water trough. From there he marshaled all his forces to do Charlie’s will, but there wasn’t much encouragement needed when love has begun to bloom.
That Christmas, Frieda Solace changed her name to Frieda Simon. During the Advent candle lighting that came after, the new doctor, the one they’d been waiting for, slipped into the sanctuary just before the ceremony ended. He sat next to Charlene Pestle, who looked awfully pretty in the new Christmas bonnet that she’d found in a package addressed to her.
Christmas Spirit left the church soon after in order to catch the tail of the December winds. As he waited for his ride, he saw the stranger and the schoolteacher ride out together. Their horses were heading back to a certain woman who was waiting for the man she loved. Christmas Spirit dusted off his hands and nodded happily.
The sprite sent a kiss of goodbye to Sarah Hofer. She closed her eyes under the comfort of her soft, warm quilt and lifted upward into the heavens. The lines of pain in her face slipped away as she saw her husband and her sons.
Then Christmas Spirit sailed up into the sky, drifting over old Marti. The drunk never looked up. His graying head was sagged against his breast, and he was dreaming of better times. His snores sawed a discordant buzz in the cold, December air.
Inside his bedroom, Samuel looked up from counting his money as the sprite flew over. The hat seller thought he saw a wisp of gold streaking across the starlit sky. He paused and rubbed his eyes, and then continued with his counting.
Sebastian, the banker, closed up his office and grumbled his way home. He, too, looked up and watched what he thought was a shooting star.
But Christmas Spirit had no time to notice fools. His eyes searched the heavens for his good friend, Charlie. The sprite smiled when he saw him and the rest of his angel friends. Then he hurriedly joined them to celebrate the joyous Christmas holiday.