It was early still, hardly ten o’clock, but the three deputies – Cleft, Thatch, Young – were already passing around a bottle of cinnamon whiskey, sitting at the old card table in the back of the Sheriff’s office. Three bumps on a log. Lewerts, the saloon owner, had come over the other day, brought them a few bottles “for the holidays.” It wasn’t really a gift, of course. He wasn’t the first man to own the saloon, and he had seen how easily the last one had been ran out. He made sure to stay on the good side of the powers that be. But it didn’t make the liquor taste any less sweet.
The Sheriff came in. Bengt had sent for him, they’d heard. Barely after dawn. Anyone else, he would have blown off until tomorrow. Probably started shouting if the issue was pushed, letting the sweat bead on his aging brow. The Sheriff valued his religion, and didn’t like to be disturbed in his observation of the holy days. But he would always come if Bengt called. He couldn’t be replaced as easily as Lewerts, it was true, but he had no illusions about who had pinned the badge on him.
“Need you boys to ride out to the Ondrey homestead,” said the Sheriff.
Young beat the others to the complaint. “Sheriff, it’s Christmas!”
“Yeah, and I’m real sorry to mess up your important plans, but Reth Parker set fire to one of Bengt’s stables last night. Around midnight, he reckons. Started a stampede that killed five of his men. Broke his son’s arm, too. His shooting arm, and you know it won’t ever heal back the way it was. So he wants him. One of his men swears he shot him; if it’s true he couldn’t have gotten far. Might already be dead, even. But if he isn’t, he’s at the Ondrey place. He always had some sort of accord with that woman.”
“Christ,” said Cleft. “Crazy son of a bitch.” Last week the three deputies had knocked at Parker’s door with shotguns in hand and an order to vacate. Bengt had wanted Parker’s land, and had offered him a fair price for it, more than it was worth, but Parker had refused. Then Parker’s livestock had started getting sick, had started dying off, his horses bolted in the night – but he still refused. He seemed to always know when Bengt’s men were coming. They could never get the drop on him. So Bengt had talked to a few people – a judge, a notary, the county clerk – and arranged for his deed to be voided, and bought the land out from under him for pennies. That was the way Bengt was. There was nothing special about the parcel, but he had wanted it, so he had taken it. And then the Sheriff, and Cleft, and Thatch, and Young, had gone with shotguns and delivered the news. Parker had gone quietly, then, but there had been darkness in his eyes. They had hoped he would just leave, but they had known it was unlikely. A man that stubborn rarely takes a hint.
“Can’t it wait, Sheriff? I mean, a woman like her, who knows what she could be up to on a day like this. A holy day, I mean. Wouldn’t it be better if we just let her be? He’s probably dead anyway.”
“Shut the hell up, Thatch. You can’t let rumors go to your head. Valerie Ondrey is a widow, same as any other. Nothing special about her. Besides, Parker committed a crime. A very serious one, I might remind you. If he is alive, he’s an outlaw, and you have a duty to bring him in, before he has the chance to make a run for the border.” The Sheriff paused, lowering his gaze. There was still something like shame in him. “Besides, Bengt wants him. He wants him by tonight. Alive, if possible.” His gaze became steady again, and his voice returned to its normal volume. “Now, are you bastards gonna get going or do I have to drag you out there myself?”
“Sheriff,” said Cleft, “aren’t you coming with us?”
Suddenly, the Sheriff couldn’t meet their gazes again. “No,” he said. “I have to stay here. In case something comes up. Now get going. That’s an order!”
Young tried to sneak the whiskey out the door with them, but the Sheriff grabbed it as he passed. He pulled out the cork as they saddled up, and took a nervous swig.
The three deputies had never actually been to the Ondrey homestead before, and they quickly realized they didn’t actually know the way, only the general direction. She came to town infrequently, and never socialized much while she was there. Certainly, she didn’t make a habit of inviting anyone out to her land. Aside from Reth, of course. Mostly, the deputies only knew her from afar, as a shadow which seemed to glide weightlessly down the streets, always in a dark dress, face pale and shockingly youthful beneath a tightly woven bundle of slate gray hair. The rumor was that something had happened in her childhood, something awful enough it had driven the color out of her. It wasn’t the only rumor about her. None of it, the deputies kept reminding themselves, was anything more than that. It still weighed heavily on their minds, even as they pretended it didn’t. They were heading north along the trail that she always took to go home. They reached a junction and chose, almost arbitrarily, what they thought was the right way. The sun climbed towards noon. Its brightness burned without warmth. They came to another split in the trail, and had to make their choice again. Cleft lifted his canteen to his mouth and felt that it was more empty than full. He couldn’t have said where the nearest spring was. Nowhere close. They took the right-hand path, leading towards a narrow canyon. They passed through it and into the valley beyond. On both sides, steep, chiseled bluffs loomed out of the sandy ground. It was quiet and airless. The bleached skeleton of a steer was shattered on some rocks nearby. There was something strange about it. It must have fallen from something high, they decided.
“You sure we haven’t been through here already?”, asked Young. “It looks mighty familiar.”
“‘Course we haven’t!” Thatch shot back. “How could we’ve been?” He didn’t sound entirely convinced. Aside from the steer, the place looked familiar to all of them.
They stopped for a minute and let their horses breathe. They were uncertain, despite what the Sheriff would say, if they shouldn’t just turn and go back. Then, as they sat in their saddles with the bluffs looking down on them, a wind stirred up from somewhere, and suddenly their eyes were full of dust. They all screwed them shut, shouting curses, trying to protect them with their hands. It didn’t do much good, of course. It was all too late. When the wind subsided and, eyes streaming, they were able to look down the length of the valley again, they all noticed something they hadn’t before. About a mile away, half-hidden by a rise in the land, was a simple house of ashen gray boards, with a stone chimney breaking through its slanted roof. A chimney from which smoke was beginning to rise. They weren’t sure how they had missed it.
They rode towards the house, still feeling grit in their eyes. They held their horses’ reins in one hand and their rifles in the other, carrying them with a casualness that belied the tension in their shoulders. The sky was overcast now, and colder than before. They hunkered against the chill. It looked almost as if it might snow. The old-timers said it had happened here before, although they’d never seen it themselves. The bluffs were high and dark around them. As they crested the rise that, they figured, must have hidden the house, they saw a fence of thin wire and scrap wood staking out a meager herb garden, and then, beyond it, Valerie Ondrey, her eyes still dark and her hair still unnaturally gray, standing in front of the door to her home in a dark and gloomy dress. Behind her were her two nieces, Helena and Jirina. They were thin girls with drawn and silent faces, almost identical. They could have been twins, were Helena not a few inches taller. When they accompanied Valerie into town, they carried themselves as though they were much older than their tender years, reserved in a way that did not suggest fear so much as disinterest, as though nothing could touch them. They always ruthlessly ignored the advances of local boys, no matter how crude, to the point that few still dared to approach them. No one in town was quite sure who their birth parents had been, or what had happened that had sent them into Valerie’s care. The trio watched the deputies approach with faces studiously devoid of emotion. Valerie looked less imposing in person than in the deputies’ memories. She was just a widow, same as any other. They let themselves relax a little, and felt stupid for ever having let themselves worry. They were the ones with guns.
Cleft reigned in his horse, turned a bit to make sure Valerie could see his hand resting across his rifle’s trigger. “Where is he?” he asked.
“Reth Parker is no kin of mine.”
“He has a fondness for your company, though.”
She paused, and let her voice falter. “That’s no business of yours, deputies. His life is his own to lead.”
“Not if he spends it setting fires on other people’s lands.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you?” They stared at each other.
Young shifted in his saddle. “Ah, hell, Cleft, this isn’t gonna go anywhere. Let’s just get on with it and search the place, she’s too stubborn to talk.”
Cleft looked down at her. He always enjoyed how it felt, to sit up here on his horse and enforce the law. It felt powerful. “Last chance, Miss Ondrey.”
“He isn’t here, deputy,” she said.
“You understand we can’t just take your word for that.” They all got down off their horses.
Valerie moved back, blocking the door with her arms. Her nieces stood to one side, watching silently. “No one enters here without my permission,” she said.
Cleft walked up to her, stopping so close the folds of his jacket brushed against her. “Will you give your permission?” He spread his lips in a smirk, and let her smell his rotting teeth.
She flinched a little. Then, finally, with a tone of resignation: “Yes.”
Cleft pushed past her, roughly, knocking her against the doorframe. Thatch and Young followed behind, and they all charged into the house. It was just one room, sparsely furnished but remarkably warm, with a fire burning brightly in the stove. There was a plain dinner table set with six chairs, plus another off on its own, beside a spinning wheel. In one corner was a small Christmas tree, loaded with brightly glowing candles and strings of popcorn and myrrh. There were four presents sitting beneath its boughs. The sweet, heavy scent of pine needles and sap mixed in the air with those of the herbs and meats coming from the stove, where a large pot of something was simmering. The deputies felt themselves relaxing further. It was as cozy a house as they had ever been in. There was a curtained-off area on the opposite side of the room, though. It was large enough for a man to hide in, to stand behind with a gun cocked, waiting. It was the only place such a man could be.
“Open it,” said Cleft, gesturing with his rifle at Valerie.
“There’s nothing behind there but our bedding, deputy.”
“I said open it.”
Valerie walked to the curtain. The three deputies raised their guns and took aim. With one decisive tug, she pulled it open, revealing a straw mattress, some blankets and bedclothes, an old dresser with a dusty mirror atop it. Nothing else. There was no one there. The deputies caught their reflections in the mirror, jagged, dirty faces pointing their guns back at them, and all almost fired. Valerie, seeing this, smiled quietly to herself.
She turned to face them. “You see? I told you he wasn’t here.” Something in her face changed. It almost looked like softness. “Deputies, I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here for nothing. You must be tired and hungry. We were just cooking dinner when you all arrived. Won’t you stay and eat with us? It’s Christmas, after all.”
The men smiled. She really was just a widow, and not such an old one at that. She must be lonely, out here with no one but her gardens and her gloomy nieces for company. Cleft noticed that the sun was setting behind them. He grimaced. It was later than he had thought. The whole day had somehow gone by. He wasn’t sure how it had happened. It felt like it had been morning just a moment ago. They were supposed to have found Parker by now. He felt his stomach growl.
As they sat at the table, watching Valerie and her nieces busy themselves around the pot on the stove, the deputies wondered at Valerie’s sudden friendliness. It really was strange. It had seemed to come out of nothing. The more they thought about it, the less they thought they should entirely trust it. She might just be a widow, but she was still friendly with Parker, no matter what she said. She was friendly with an outlaw, a man wanted by Bengt. And why did she come to town so little, and act so cold when she did? What sort of woman was she, really? They realized they couldn’t say. But maybe she really didn’t know what had happened. Maybe he really hadn’t been here. Maybe, if she did know, she would agree he had to be dealt with, no matter how she had felt about him. And the house was so warm and cozy, and it would be a long, cold ride back to town. It would be so much better with hot food in their bellies. There was really no reason to refuse. Perhaps there was some wine around, too. Perhaps her nieces would have some, and then warm up a little, too. They were young, still, but not too young, in the deputies’ eyes. Their slenderness had a sickly character to it, but that didn’t make it entirely unattractive, and they weren’t beaten in yet, like the girls at Lewerts in town. Their eyes still had life. How tired the deputies were of those lifeless eyes. Yes, perhaps they could have some real fun, later. Perhaps it didn’t matter how the girls felt about it. They were suspected of sheltering an outlaw, after all. Her aunt could be hiding something, or even one of them. Things happen in such cases.
Their thoughts drifted, with a typical aimlessness, to the tree sitting in the corner. They were pretty sure Christmas trees didn’t grow within a hundred miles of here. Bengt, and a few of the town’s richer businessmen, had to have them brought in at great expense. They had never heard of any homesteader having one. Except, somehow, Valerie Ondrey. Where had she gotten it? They realized they couldn’t say.
The food was in front of them, suddenly; a stew served in wooden bowls, vegetables and herbs and cubes of pale, tender meat floating sluggishly in a thick beige stock. It was accompanied by a glass of some clear liquor, very strong-smelling. Valerie sat across from them, Helena and Jirina to each side of her. Young suddenly realized something had been bothering him.
“Say, why was this table geared up for six when we got here? How did you know we were coming?”
Valerie looked at him coolly. “I didn’t, deputy. I always keep this many chairs at the table, guests or not. Where else would I keep them?”
Young didn’t say anything. He had to admit she had a point.
“Please,” she said. “Eat up, while it’s hot.” She lifted a spoonful of the stew to her lips and blew gently. The deputies did the same, confident now that no poison had been slipped into the pot. It was delicious. The best stew they had ever tasted. Rich and savory and slightly sweet. Every ingredient seemed to be in perfect balance. They forgot everything else and began to slurp it up hungrily, losing themselves in the simple comfort of the hot food and the warm room, with the candles burning brightly on the tree in the corner, and the four presents underneath. It was a Christmas dinner of a sort they hadn’t enjoyed since they were small children. They finished their first bowls and then had seconds, which were gone just as quickly, and then thirds, pausing only to take large swallows of the clear liquor. Valerie and her nieces had one bowl each, consuming it slowly and calmly, and then sat and watched their guests gorge themselves. They said nothing. Occasionally they took a small sip of the clear liquor. Their faces were impassive, like a distant bank of clouds. Finally, the men found themselves reaching the limits of their appetites. Each cleaned the bowl in front of him and sat back, content and slightly dazed. It was, they all thought, one of the best meals they had ever had. Thatch, scratching his belly and looking around the room, found his eyes drawn to the presents still under the tree. One was larger than the others.
“You always wait until after dinner to open your presents?” he asked idly, making conversation.
Valerie smiled in a strange way. “Not at all, deputy. We had our celebrations last night. Those gifts are for you. For all of you.”
The men stared at her. “What —” The question was cut off. Dark, cold tendrils had slid out of the backs of their chairs and, in an instant, wrapped themselves around the deputies so tightly they could barely breathe. They worried their ribs were going to crack. Quickly, the tendrils spread up their chests and into their mouths, gagging them. The expressions of the women across from them hadn’t changed.
“I lied earlier, deputies. I’m sorry about that. Reth Parker is here. He’s buried in a shallow grave out back. He had enough strength in him to ride here, but no more. He died on my doorstep. There was nothing I could do.” Helena and Jirina had gotten up and fetched the presents from under the tree. They placed the three smaller ones in front of each of the men. The larger one they left by the door. “Reth was a better man than any one of you. It’s not often I take on a pupil, but he was someone special. Someone with real sensitivity. There was so much I could have taught him. But then Bengt started nosing around his land. Your master Bengt.” She spat the word out. “If he had just left Reth in peace there would have been no trouble. That’s all he wanted: to live in peace. But your master loves his stinking cattle too much. He’d cover the whole earth with them, if he could.” She paused. “It was stupid what Reth did. Sloppy. He was trying to control forces he’d hardly begun to understand. But I understand how he was driven to it. You do, too. It’s not something I can let lie. That’s why I let you find your way here. Why I let you into my home. You’ll serve a purpose now. I doubt it gives you much solace to hear all this, but I think everyone deserves to know why they’re going to die. Even cowards like you.”
The deputies were thrashing in their chairs but couldn’t get loose. They tried to scream, but couldn’t make a sound. The bows tying shut the presents on the table began to unknot themselves, and their lids began to lift open. In his last, frantic moment, Cleft happened to catch a glimpse out the window behind him, and he saw that it had started to snow. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. A Christmas miracle.
Later that night, Bengt was sitting on the porch of his ranch house, watching the snow drift down. It was the first time he’d seen snow since he had come to America, 25 years ago. In his youth he had spent long, bitter winters spent splitting firewood, working for hours just to stay warm. Those had been hard years, but they were behind him now. What were his troubles today? Nothing but a few insignificant malcontents. Losers at the game of life. Nothing at all, really. The bottle of wine in his hand, a fine vintage, was almost empty. His son was in bed, his arm set and healing. It would be better soon, he told himself, all better. Just like it was. The proper order of things would be reasserted.
Then he saw something, coming out of the quiet darkness. A man. He recognized him; it was one of the Sheriff’s deputies. There was something strange about him. His eyes looked glassy. He moved in short, shuffling steps. He was carrying a box in his hand. A Christmas present.
“Say,” Bengt called out, “you boys caught that Parker sonofabitch yet? It’s about time, you know. I said I wanted him here before dark!”
The deputy stopped a few feet from him and put the box down.
“Is that for me?” Bengt laughed, surprise distracting him from his scolding. “What’s the idea?” He got up from his chair unsteadily and made his way over. Still laughing, he dropped to his knees and started pulling at the ribbon holding the box closed. At the edges of his vision he noticed the other two deputies had stepped into the light, too. He hadn’t heard them coming. Shrugging, he pulled the lid off and found something that he could not understand. Inside the box was what he could only see as his own head, cleanly severed at the neck, its eyes open and staring back at him with an expression of absolute hatred. Before he could do anything, before he could even scream, it opened its mouth and vomited a jet of putrid black sludge directly at his face, smothering him, drowning him, in horrible bile. The three deputies came and stood closer around him, watching him die with lifeless eyes. Their bodies described a triangle pointing towards the North Star, shining out across the land from the coldness beyond the sky.
— David C. Porter is an only child. His work has appeared in surfaces, SELFFUCK, tragickal, and other publications. He also writes the Substack project Garden Scenery (https://gardenscenery.substack.com/). He can be reached on Twitter @toomuchistrue or via his website (https://davidcporter.neocities.org/).