Popgun Plays Santa Claus by Will C. Barnes

"Salute yer pardners, let her go,
Balance all an' do-se-do.
Swing yer gal, then run away,
Right, an' left an' gents sashay."

"Whoa, Mack, there's a letter in the Widow Miller's box."

The pony sidled gingerly toward the mailbox nailed to the trunk of a pine tree, his eyes and ears watching closely the white sheet of paper that lay on the bottom of the open box, held by a small stone which allowed one end to flutter and flap in the wind in a way that excited his suspicions.

When the Widow Miller wished to mail a letter she placed it, properly stamped, in her box and the first neighbor passing that way took it out and mailed it for her, she being some miles off the regular mail route.

"Gents to right, now swing or cheat,
On to the next gal an' repeat."

He chanted the old familiar frontier quadrille call as he tried to force the pony close to the box to reach the paper without dismounting.

"Stand still, you fool," he spurred the animal vigorously, "that there little piece of paper ain't going to eat you."

But the more he spurred the farther from the box went the animal. "Beats all what a feller will do to save unloading hisself from a hoss," he threw the reins over Mack's head, swung to the ground and strode toward the box.

"Balance next an' don't be shy;
Swing yer pards an' swing 'em high."

He sang as he lifted the stone and picked up the paper beneath it, which proved to be a large-sized sheet of writing paper folded three times. A one-cent stamp evidently taken from some old letter was stuck in one corner and beneath it was scrawled in a childish, unlettered hand the words:

"Mister Sandy Claws
The North Pole."

Almost reverently Gibson unfolded the paper, feeling he was about to have some youthful heart opened to his curious eyes.

"Deer Sandy Claws," it began, "please bring me a train of railroad cars, an' a pair of spurs an' a 22 rifle to shoot rabits with, an' a big tin horn. An' Sandy, Mary wants a big Teddy bare an' a real doll what shuts her eyes when she lays down. An' Minnie she's the baby, Sandy, so pleas bring her a pictur book an' a doll an' a wolly lam an' bring us all a lot of candy an' apples an' oranges an' nuts, for since Dady went away, we ain't had none of them things much. Mother she says you know jist where we live so don't forgit us for I've tride to be a good boy this year.

"James Simpson Miller, 7 years old."

Gibson felt a lump rising in his throat, and took refuge in song to hide his embarrassment.

"Bunch the gals an' circle round;
Whack your feet upon the ground.
Form a basket break away,
Swing an' kiss, an' all git gay."

He wiped something out of the corner of his eyes with the back of his buckskin glove, and blew his nose savagely. "Hm, Shucks, seems like I'm a gittin' a cold in my haid," he remarked sort of confidentially to the pony.

Once more he read the letter.

"Hm, Shucks, wants a railroad train, hey? An' a gunchester to kill rabbits, an' a tin horn, an' Mary wants a Teddy bear, does she, an' apples an' oranges an' candy for all of 'em. Say, Bill Gibson, it's up to you to play Santy Claus for these kids an' if you handle the job right maybe you can convince their Aunt Nancy that she'd ought to say 'Yes' to a man about your size an' complexion." Again he broke into song.

"Aleman left an' balance all.
Lift yer hoofs an' let 'em fall.
Swing yer op'sites; swing agin,
Kiss the darlings—if ye kin."

"Git up, Mack, les git along to camp and let the bunch in on this Santy Claus game. Hm, Shucks, Nancy said she wanted a watermelon-pink sweater—whatever color that may be—to wear to the New Year's dance up on Crow Creek. Reckin the thing won't cost more'n a month's pay. I'll jist get her one if it takes my whole roll." Once more he dropped into song.

"Back yer pardners, do-se-do.
Ladies break, an' gents you know.
Crow hop out, an' dove hop in,
Join yer paddies an' circle again.
"Salute yer pardner, let her go,
Balance all an' do-se-do.
Gents salute yer little sweets,
Hitch an' promenade to seats."

That night around the table in the bunk house of the Oak Creek Sheep Company, four or five men watched the foreman write a letter to the owner, Mr. Barrington, who was wintering on the coast. Briefly he explained how the letter to Santa Claus fell into their hands and the desire of the men at the ranch to furnish the children with all the things they asked for, and more.

Miller, the foreman explained, had been accidentally killed a couple of years before and his wife was putting up a hard fight to stay on the piece of land he had homesteaded long enough to get title to it from the government.

There were three kids, he continued, James, the oldest, seven years, and two girls, Mary, five, and Minnie, the baby, two.

"The boys ain't a-limiting you in the cost, so please get anything else you and Mrs. Barrington thinks would please the kids and let me know the cost and I'll charge it up to the boys' pay accounts.

"Also Bill Gibson wants that Mrs. Barrington should pick out what he says is to be a 'watermelon-pink' sweater for Mrs. Miller's kid sister, Nancy. Bill says Nancy is just about Mrs. Barrington's size, and what'd fit her will fit Nancy all right.

"Bill he says he reckons Mrs. B. will savvy what a watermelon-pink sweater is, which is more than any of us do."

Three days before Christmas Bill Gibson set forth for the railroad, twenty-five miles away, to bring back the expected Christmas stuff. There was two feet of snow on the ground and the roads were impassable for wheels; so Bill took with him two pack animals, a horse and a mule.

He figured he would be one day going and one coming and that on Christmas eve, after marking and arranging all the presents, some one would ride down to the cabin and leave the whole business on the porch of the widow's cabin where she would be sure to find it early Christmas morning. At the railroad Gibson found the trains all tied up with snow to the west, and the packages had not arrived.

"Hm, shucks," was his terse comment. "Now wouldn't it jist be hell if the plunder didn't come in time for them kids to have their Christmas tree?" But late that night a train came through which brought the package he had come for.

By unpacking the stuff from the box in which they were shipped Gibson managed to get everything in the two kyacks carried by the mule while upon the horse he packed a load of provisions for the camp.


 "Gibson managed to get everything in the two Kyacks carried by the mule"

Barrington and his wife had added liberally to the list of toys and, knowing well the conditions at the sheep ranch, had marked or tagged each article with the name of the child for which it was intended. Even Mrs. Miller had been remembered generously.

The sweater was there, packed carefully in a fancy box. Bill loosed the ribbon that fastened it and slipped a card into the box on which he had laboriously written, "To Miss Nancy, from her true friend, Bill."

But the storm broke out again and it was long after noon the next day before he dared start, for the wind blew great guns and the air was filled with icy particles that no one could face.

Leading the pack horse with the mule "tailed up" to him, Gibson started for home, but made poor progress through the drifted snow. It was almost two o'clock the next morning when he passed the letterbox at the trail to the Widow Miller's place. The moon had gone down behind the trees to the west and it was quite dark, but here the wind had swept the ground bare of snow, and his progress with his rather jaded animals was much better.

Sleepy and tired from his long ride Gibson reached the ranch and rode into the warm stable to unsaddle. There to his great surprise he found he had but one animal behind him, the rope which had been around the mule's neck still dragging at the pack horse's tail, a mute evidence of what had happened.

"Hm, shucks," he commented grimly, "won't them there boys in the bunk house give me particular hell for this night's work?"

Wearily he unsaddled and unpacked the horses. Still more wearily he dragged himself up the path to the house, stirred the fire in the fireplace into a blaze, and when the coffee was hot drank a cup, ate greedily of the food which the cook had left for him, crawled into his blankets and in ten seconds was dead to the world.

In his dreams he was swinging a rosy cheeked girl through the steps of an old-fashioned quadrille, she being attired in a most gorgeous watermelon-pink sweater.

"Swing yer pardners, swing agin;
Kiss the darlings—if you kin."

He essayed the kiss only to be awakened on the verge of its attainment by a heavy hand on his shoulder, followed by a voice which demanded in no soft tones, "Where's your Christmas plunder?"

He sat up in bed half dazed by his night's experience.

"Come alive, Bill; come alive, an' tell us about the things for the kids. We can't find them nowhere."

Gibson yawned and rubbed his eyes in a vain attempt to delay the castastrophe which he knew would encompass him when he told of the loss of the pack mule.

Before he dropped off to sleep he had planned to get an early start in the morning back on his trail to try to find the lost animal. Popgun had been bought from the widow soon after her husband's demise and he shrewdly guessed that the tired, hungry mule would most likely strike direct for his old and nearby home.

He sprang from bed and grabbed his clothes.

"Hm, shucks," he began. "I reckon I done lost the mule coming home. Had him tailed up to old Paint and just about the time I passed the trail into Widder Miller's place Paint set back on the lead rope and like to pulled the saddle offen old Mack, me havin' the rope tied hard and fast to the nub. He let up in a minute and come along all right and I'm a figuring 'twere just about there that Popgun gits loose, he probably havin' been leaning back on the pack hosse's tail a right smart causing Paint to pull back hisself. Popgun likely stripped the rope over his head and being about all in turned off down the trail to the widder's and it's dollars to doughnuts he's a eating hay in her shed right now. Me being tired and sleepy I never sensed the loss till I gits here with the mule's rope a dragging along still tied to Paint's tail. Hm, shucks, I'll find him or bust a shoe string."

"An' to think they have to go all the way back to Afriky to git ivory when there's such a lot of it to be had nearer home," was the sarcastic comment of the foreman.

From the windows of the Widow Miller's cabin the whole world seemed wrapped in a mantle of white. Down along the creek in the meadow the rose bushes and willows poked their heads above the snow. Changing their skirts for overalls, she and Nancy soon picked a couple of quarts of the brilliant red berries or fruit of the rose bushes. That night as soon as the children were safely in bed they started in on their Christmas tree preparations. Several days before Nancy had slipped out into the timber and cut a small spruce which she dragged to the stable and hid under some loose hay, and with an empty canned goods case and some stones they managed to make a very satisfactory base for it. Over the coals in the fireplace they popped a huge dish-pan full of corn and worked late into the night stringing popcorn and the rose berries with which to festoon the tree.

"I've seen my mother use cranberries for the same thing," she told her sister, "but these rose berries look quite as well I think."

From the pages of a mail order catalogue they cut figures from the brilliantly colored fashion plates which, pasted upon stiff cardboard and hung to the tips of the branches, made famous decorations.

Festooned with the long strings of rose berries and popcorn, with these gaily painted ladies of fashion dangling from every bough, it made a very satisfactory Christmas tree. After placing upon it the presents for the children which they had been able to buy or make, together with a few apples and oranges, some stick candy, each done up separately in paper, "just to make it seem more," Nancy said, the two women retired for the night.

How long she had slept or what awakened her, Mrs. Miller could not tell, but as she strained her ears for the slightest sound, she imagined she could hear outside the footfalls of some heavy animal. She knew it could be no bear, for whatever it was the snow was crunching under its feet, nor was it a human, for the steps were those of a four-footed object.

The moon, that earlier in the evening had flooded the valley until it was almost as light as day, was now just dipping behind the mountain to the west, throwing the stable into deep shadow, from which the sounds now seemed to come.

There was a bare possibility of its being some range cow, although they had all long since drifted down into the lower country, but she finally decided it must be one of the big bull elks which regularly wintered on the wind-swept sides of the mountain above them and sometimes came down to the ranch seeking feed during times of heavy snow.

Shivering with the cold she crept back to bed realizing that daylight would soon come. Rudely her dreams were broken by a sound that at first froze the very marrow in her bones, but which with immense relief she instantly realized could come from the throat of but one animal and that, a mule.

Fortunately the children slept through it all, and dressing as quickly as they could, she and Nancy started for the stable, Mrs. Miller armed with her automatic.

No sooner had they stepped from the porch than the mule that had been hanging about the stable trying to get in spotted them and greeted their coming with a series of brays and nickerings that showed his joy at seeing some human being.

It was Popgun, the pack still on his back. Leading him to the cabin the women quickly loosened the diamond hitch, took off the canvas pack cover and piled the kyacks upon the porch after which he was placed in a vacant stall in the stable and fed.

To the women versed in frontier ways and signs the solution of the visit from their long-eared friend was simple, and they sized up the situation almost exactly as it had occurred. Therefore they felt certain some one would be on his trail before very long.

The rattle of the pack rigging on the porch aroused the children, and when the women returned from the stable the two older ones were investigating the pack.

Bidding them not to meddle with the things, Mrs. Miller and her sister went inside the house to get breakfast leaving the kids on the porch. Childish curiosity could not well be stifled, especially on such a day as this. They had been told stories of the coming of Santa Claus and while Jimmie had learned that a reindeer looks very much like a bull elk he had once seen, he also knew that all sorts of things could be packed in a pair of kyacks and knew no reason why Santa should not have availed himself of that means of transporting his gifts under certain conditions.

To loosen the straps that held the kyack covers was an easy matter. To lift up the heavy canvas covers was still easier and the first thing that met the eager eyes of both children was a long tin horn nested down in some excelsior. As he pulled at it a fluttering tag caught his eye. On it he read: "For James—Merry Christmas." One wild shout of delight and he gave a blast on the toy that brought both women to the door just in time to see Mary drag from the kyack a huge Teddy Bear. On this was another tag marked: "To Mary—Merry Christmas."

Before his scandalized mother could collect her senses enough to stop him Jimmie had dropped his horn and gone on a voyage of exploration into the depths of the two kyacks. One of his first discoveries was the box containing the sweater. The tag tied to it cleared up in a measure the doubts which Mrs. Miller had had as to the propriety of thus making free with other people's property, and that Santa had been sent by the men at the sheep camp.

An hour later a man rode down the trail back of the house and quite out of range of its windows. Tying his horse at the side of the stable away from the house he crept to the corner of the building and cautiously peeped out.

The smoke was curling briskly from the cabin chimney and in the tense stillness he could hear noises which indicated very plainly that the letter to "Sandy Claws" had borne fruit, for the most ear-splitting sounds were coming from the cabin, sounds which he knew to be the natural results of three tin horns in the mouths of three delighted kids.

As he stood there a door slammed, and a girl stepped out on the porch arrayed in the most gorgeous sweater he had ever imagined. On her head was a jaunty cap of the same color and material as the sweater, while in her hands she held a tin bucket in which most unquestionably was the breakfast for the chickens which were making loud demands for release from their log coop near the stable.

In his inmost heart Bill Gibson knew that if ever a man was blessed by the Gods with the one opportunity of his life, it was facing him at this very moment. Nancy came tripping down the snowy path a perfect picture of girlish beauty and happiness. Gibson drew back so she could not see him until she had turned the corner of the stable. As she did so and met his eyes the song turned into a maidenly shriek. Her cheeks were blazing like two peonies, she tried hard to speak, but the words died on her lips. Mechanically she set the bucket of feed on a small shelf where the chickens could not reach it. Bill interpreted the move as meaning either a fight or complete surrender. He believed it was the latter and took a step toward her.

"Christmas gift, Nancy," he said. His voice had an odd quaver in it. "Old Santy seems to have brung you the sort of sweater you wanted." He was gaining confidence.

"He sure did," she replied, striving in vain to keep her eyes from meeting his.

"Nancy," he demanded, "ain't you got nothing for me this grand Christmas morning?"

"What you wanting mostly?" her eyes fairly dancing with mischief and telling what her lips dared not.

A look of triumph swept over the man's bronzed face.

"You—an' I'm a-going to take it right here." He took a step toward her; she turned to run but with one bound he was at her side, caught her in his arms and fairly smothered her with kisses.

He drew back his head and looked deep into her eyes. "How about it?" he demanded.

"About what?" very archly.

He kissed her a dozen times before she replied. Nor did she seem to object to the action.

"You know the Christmas present I most want, Nancy."

He drew her closer to him, her arms found their way about his neck. "Bill," she whispered in his ear, "you're an old darling, let's go up to the house and tell the news to sister."