Classic Shorts: A CHAPARRAL CHRISTMAS GIFT

CLASSIC SHORTS
If you love short stories, you owe it to yourself to read the masters.  In this series of short columns, I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite practitioners of the short form. Included will be links to inexpensive editions of their works. Enjoy, and happy reading!

A CHAPARRAL CHRISTMAS GIFT
by O.Henry

O. Henry (born William Henry Porter, September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910) was an American writer known for his sentimental stories and surprise endings.  His short fiction is classic, and he is perhaps best known for his  masterpiece, The Gift of the Magi.

In the late 1890s, Porter was convicted of embezzlement, and spent some time in prison. There he began writing stories under his pen name, O.Henry. He published 14 stories while he was in jail, and was released early for good behavior.

In 1902, he began his most prolific period of writing when he moved to New York, where he wrote 381 stories over the next 8 years, until he died in 1910 of cirrohsis of the liver, the result of his heavy drinking.

But O.Henry’s stories have never lost their popularity, and he is widely thought of as a master of the short fiction form.

Here now, in time for the holidays, is a wonderful but not widely known Christmas tale. Enjoy!

A CHAPARRAL CHRISTMAS GIFT
The original cause of the trouble was about twenty years in growing.

At the end of that time it was worth it.

Had you lived anywhere within fifty miles of Sundown Ranch you would
have heard of it. It possessed a quantity of jet-black hair, a pair
of extremely frank, deep-brown eyes and a laugh that rippled across
the prairie like the sound of a hidden brook. The name of it was
Rosita McMullen; and she was the daughter of old man McMullen of the
Sundown Sheep Ranch.

There came riding on red roan steeds–or, to be more explicit, on a
paint and a flea-bitten sorrel–two wooers. One was Madison Lane,
and the other was the Frio Kid. But at that time they did not call him
the Frio Kid, for he had not earned the honours of special
nomenclature. His name was simply Johnny McRoy.

It must not be supposed that these two were the sum of the agreeable
Rosita’s admirers. The bronchos of a dozen others champed their bits
at the long hitching rack of the Sundown Ranch. Many were the
sheeps’-eyes that were cast in those savannas that did not belong to
the flocks of Dan McMullen. But of all the cavaliers, Madison Lane
and Johnny McRoy galloped far ahead, wherefore they are to be
chronicled.

Madison Lane, a young cattleman from the Nueces country, won the race.
He and Rosita were married one Christmas day. Armed, hilarious,
vociferous, magnanimous, the cowmen and the sheepmen, laying aside
their hereditary hatred, joined forces to celebrate the occasion.

Sundown Ranch was sonorous with the cracking of jokes and sixshooters,
the shine of buckles and bright eyes, the outspoken congratulations of
the herders of kine.

But while the wedding feast was at its liveliest there descended upon
it Johnny McRoy, bitten by jealousy, like one possessed.

“I’ll give you a Christmas present,” he yelled, shrilly, at the door,
with his .45 in his hand. Even then he had some reputation as an
offhand shot.

His first bullet cut a neat underbit in Madison Lane’s right ear. The
barrel of his gun moved an inch. The next shot would have been the
bride’s had not Carson, a sheepman, possessed a mind with triggers
somewhat well oiled and in repair. The guns of the wedding party had
been hung, in their belts, upon nails in the wall when they sat at
table, as a concession to good taste. But Carson, with great
promptness, hurled his plate of roast venison and frijoles at McRoy,
spoiling his aim. The second bullet, then, only shattered the white
petals of a Spanish dagger flower suspended two feet above Rosita’s
head.

The guests spurned their chairs and jumped for their weapons. It was
considered an improper act to shoot the bride and groom at a wedding.
In about six seconds there were twenty or so bullets due to be
whizzing in the direction of Mr. McRoy.

“I’ll shoot better next time,” yelled Johnny; “and there’ll be a next
time.” He backed rapidly out the door.

Carson, the sheepman, spurred on to attempt further exploits by the
success of his plate-throwing, was first to reach the door. McRoy’s
bullet from the darkness laid him low.

The cattlemen then swept out upon him, calling for vengeance, for,
while the slaughter of a sheepman has not always lacked condonement,
it was a decided misdemeanour in this instance. Carson was
innocent; he was no accomplice at the matrimonial proceedings; nor had
any one heard him quote the line “Christmas comes but once a year” to
the guests.

But the sortie failed in its vengeance. McRoy was on his horse and
away, shouting back curses and threats as he galloped into the
concealing chaparral.

That night was the birthnight of the Frio Kid. He became the “bad
man” of that portion of the State. The rejection of his suit by Miss
McMullen turned him to a dangerous man. When officers went after him
for the shooting of Carson, he killed two of them, and entered upon
the life of an outlaw. He became a marvellous shot with either hand.
He would turn up in towns and settlements, raise a quarrel at the
slightest opportunity, pick off his man and laugh at the officers
of the law. He was so cool, so deadly, so rapid, so inhumanly
blood-thirsty that none but faint attempts were ever made to capture
him. When he was at last shot and killed by a little one-armed Mexican
who was nearly dead himself from fright, the Frio Kid had the deaths
of eighteen men on his head. About half of these were killed in fair
duels depending upon the quickness of the draw. The other half were
men whom he assassinated from absolute wantonness and cruelty.

Many tales are told along the border of his impudent courage and
daring. But he was not one of the breed of desperadoes who have
seasons of generosity and even of softness. They say he never had
mercy on the object of his anger. Yet at this and every Christmastide
it is well to give each one credit, if it can be done, for whatever
speck of good he may have possessed. If the Frio Kid ever did a
kindly act or felt a throb of generosity in his heart it was once at
such a time and season, and this is the way it happened.

One who has been crossed in love should never breathe the odour from
the blossoms of the ratama tree. It stirs the memory to a dangerous
degree.

One December in the Frio country there was a ratama tree in full
bloom, for the winter had been as warm as springtime. That way rode
the Frio Kid and his satellite and co-murderer, Mexican Frank. The kid
reined in his mustang, and sat in his saddle, thoughtful and grim,
with dangerously narrowing eyes. The rich, sweet scent touched him
somewhere beneath his ice and iron.

“I don’t know what I’ve been thinking about, Mex,” he remarked in his
usual mild drawl, “to have forgot all about a Christmas present I got
to give. I’m going to ride over to-morrow night and shoot Madison
Lane in his own house. He got my girl–Rosita would have had me if
he hadn’t cut into the game. I wonder why I happened to overlook it
up to now?”

“Ah, shucks, Kid,” said Mexican, “don’t talk foolishness. You know
you can’t get within a mile of Mad Lane’s house to-morrow night. I
see old man Allen day before yesterday, and he says Mad is going to
have Christmas doings at his house. You remember how you shot up the
festivities when Mad was married, and about the threats you made?
Don’t you suppose Mad Lane’ll kind of keep his eye open for a certain
Mr. Kid? You plumb make me tired, Kid, with such remarks.”

“I’m going,” repeated the Frio Kid, without heat, “to go to Madison
Lane’s Christmas doings, and kill him. I ought to have done it a long
time ago. Why, Mex, just two weeks ago I dreamed me and Rosita was
married instead of her and him; and we was living in a house, and I
could see her smiling at me, and–oh! h—-l, Mex, he got her; and
I’ll get him–yes, sir, on Christmas Eve he got her, and then’s when
I’ll get him.”

“There’s other ways of committing suicide,” advised Mexican. “Why
don’t you go and surrender to the sheriff?”

“I’ll get him,” said the Kid.

Christmas Eve fell as balmy as April. Perhaps there was a hint of
far-away frostiness in the air, but it tingles like seltzer, perfumed
faintly with late prairie blossoms and the mesquite grass.

When night came the five or six rooms of the ranch-house were
brightly lit. In one room was a Christmas tree, for the Lanes had a
boy of three, and a dozen or more guests were expected from the nearer
ranches.

At nightfall Madison Lane called aside Jim Belcher and three other
cowboys employed on his ranch.

“Now, boys,” said Lane, “keep your eyes open. Walk around the house
and watch the road well. All of you know the ‘Frio Kid,’ as they call
him now, and if you see him, open fire on him without asking any
questions. I’m not afraid of his coming around, but Rosita is. She’s
been afraid he’d come in on us every Christmas since we were married.”

The guests had arrived in buckboards and on horseback, and were making
themselves comfortable inside.

The evening went along pleasantly. The guests enjoyed and praised
Rosita’s excellent supper, and afterward the men scattered in groups
about the rooms or on the broad “gallery,” smoking and chatting.

The Christmas tree, of course, delighted the youngsters, and above all
were they pleased when Santa Claus himself in magnificent white beard
and furs appeared and began to distribute the toys.

“It’s my papa,” announced Billy Sampson, aged six. “I’ve seen him wear
’em before.”

Berkly, a sheepman, an old friend of Lane, stopped Rosita as she was
passing by him on the gallery, where he was sitting smoking.

“Well, Mrs. Lane,” said he, “I suppose by this Christmas you’ve
gotten over being afraid of that fellow McRoy, haven’t you? Madison
and I have talked about it, you know.”

“Very nearly,” said Rosita, smiling, “but I am still nervous
sometimes. I shall never forget that awful time when he came so near
to killing us.”

“He’s the most cold-hearted villain in the world,” said Berkly. “The
citizens all along the border ought to turn out and hunt him down like
a wolf.”

“He has committed awful crimes,” said Rosita, “but–I–don’t–know.
I think there is a spot of good somewhere in everybody. He was not
always bad–that I know.”

Rosita turned into the hallway between the rooms. Santa Claus, in
muffling whiskers and furs, was just coming through.

“I heard what you said through the window, Mrs. Lane,” he said. “I
was just going down in my pocket for a Christmas present for your
husband. But I’ve left one for you, instead. It’s in the room to
your right.”

“Oh, thank you, kind Santa Claus,” said Rosita, brightly.

Rosita went into the room, while Santa Claus stepped into the cooler
air of the yard.

She found no one in the room but Madison.

“Where is my present that Santa said he left for me in here?” she
asked.

“Haven’t seen anything in the way of a present,” said her husband,
laughing, “unless he could have meant me.”

The next day Gabriel Radd, the foreman of the X O Ranch, dropped into
the post-office at Loma Alta.

“Well, the Frio Kid’s got his dose of lead at last,” he remarked to
the postmaster.

“That so? How’d it happen?”

“One of old Sanchez’s Mexican sheep herders did it!–think of it!
the Frio Kid killed by a sheep herder! The Greaser saw him riding
along past his camp about twelve o’clock last night, and was so
skeered that he up with a Winchester and let him have it. Funniest
part of it was that the Kid was dressed all up with white Angora-skin
whiskers and a regular Santy Claus rig-out from head to foot. Think
of the Frio Kid playing Santy!”

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