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Grid's Christmas

INTRODUCTION: The title character of this story, Gridley Maule Junior, originated in the Rifleman episode “The Sidewinder’. The ending of that episode was so disappointing to me that I wrote “Sidewinder, the Alternate Ending” in which Maule reaches a truce with Lucas McCain and rides off at the end of the story, still in character, a lone young man with a gun in the old West. This story is based on the return of that true Grid Maule character – not on the unfortunate one who ended the original Sidewinder episode with exploding cigars for Lucas and Micah.

(Rooster Davis)


***

I. Unbearable

Gridley Maule Junior turned up his collar against the snow squall but it didn’t help; the snow stung him and he shivered from the cold. His thin jacket had been good enough for autumn but now that winter had arrived with a vengeance, it provided little protection from the cold. Worse yet, it was now soaking wet – except where it was freezing at the edges.

He urged his tired horse Whiskey on through the darkness. As he rode he reflected on the circumstances that had delivered him to this predicament, out in the cold winter without suitable clothing, many hundreds of miles from the small shack he called home. He remembered bitterly how far he had traveled on the promise of a good job on a ranch and a decent place to live in northern New Mexico, only to learn upon his arrival that the ranch had been sold months ago, and that there was neither a job nor a place for him to stay after all. Adding insult to injury, the new foreman and two of his ranch hands had made great sport of running him off the property.

And he thought back over how late the fall had stayed pleasantly warm, then yielded so suddenly to all-out winter just as he started the long ride back from his failed journey. He had been cold for so many days now – whether riding Whiskey, or sleeping somewhere along his route - he had forgotten how it felt to not be cold. He was at his breaking point.

He no longer had the strength or will to even consider making the rest of the ride home. He wouldn’t make it anyhow, he knew that. The only thing left to him was to find a quiet place – a shack, a cave, somewhere out of the direct elements; he would thank Whiskey for being a good horse and apologize for leaving him like this, and set him free; then, in the quiet place he’d found, he would use his .45 Colt one last time, to free himself as well, from the cold and from his loneliness, forever. He could think of no other way out. He watched as he rode along, looking for someplace that would serve this final purpose.

Then, in the shadows along the road he saw a sign partly obscured by snow. He halted Whiskey and, stiff from the cold, slowly climbed down for a look. Brushing snow off the sign with numb fingers, he could just make out the lettering… ‘North Fork 2 Miles’.

North Fork! Late in the summer he had arrived there to shoot it out with Lucas McCain, seeking revenge against him for the death of his father. He had left again the same day he arrived, on an uneasy truce, his thirst for vengeance blunted by Mark McCain’s expression of sympathy for the loss of his pa. Now here he was again, approaching North Fork.

What to do, what to do? As he stood there soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone, he knew he couldn’t go on much longer… but he knew he didn’t want to die, either. Maybe he could seek out the McCain ranch and ask for help - if he had left there last summer on good enough terms, perhaps Lucas McCain might not slam the door in his face. But it was dark, months had gone by, and he could not recall how to get there. He decided to ride on to North Fork and see if someone was about on this wintry night who could direct him. He didn’t much like towns, or strangers, but he would have to do this. He climbed back on Whiskey and urged him to ‘giddap’. At least, North Fork was not much further.

After a little while, lights appeared in the distance; the closer Grid got to town, the more he could make out. Most of the light seemed to be coming from one place. Soon he could see it was the church which was brightly lit from within, its stained-glass windows aglow. There were horses and wagons and buggies parked all around, and as he got still closer, he could hear the voices of the congregation raised in song. The sign by the door said, “Christmas Eve Service 8:00 PM”. Grid hadn’t known it was coming on Christmas but he didn’t really care; alone in the world, it had always been just another day to him.

He climbed off Whiskey and threw his lead over a post. While the street was empty of people, there were certainly many inside the church. Hesitantly, he approached the white structure. He had never been inside a church in his life, so far as he knew at least; he was afraid to go in so he just stood near the building, trying to dodge the cold wind. Standing as an outsider, as always, he heard the voices of the congregation:

Come desire of nations, come, fix in us Thy humble home
Oh to all Thyself impart, formed in each believing heart!
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King,
Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

The music was beautiful, but Grid was too cold and tired to do any more than wish the people within would finish their singing and come out so that someone could tell him where to find the McCain ranch. Every minute felt like an hour. He stood and shivered, closed his eyes, and kept hoping that the church service would end.

In much less time than it felt like, he got his wish. The church bell tolled and organist played ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is Come’ as a postlude to the service. The church doors swung open and the crowd began emptying out, accompanied by the sounds of children laughing and the adults wishing each other a blessed Christmas.

Grid by now was so cold his arms and legs felt stiff. A woman and a boy of perhaps ten years’ age were walking his way and Grid approached them.

“Ma’am, c-can you t-tell me where the M-McCain ranch is?” he stammered, shivering.

She and the boy looked at him at first in surprise, then in some dismay at his condition. The woman said, “I’ll do better than that, young man… Lucas McCain is here, somewhere….” To the boy with her, she said “Tad, go find Mister McCain and ask him to come over here.”

“Okay ma,” the boy said, and trotted off to the crowd of departing worshipers.

Grid said an almost inaudible ‘thank you’ and waited. “My goodness but you look very cold,” said the woman.

“Yes’m,” was all Grid could say.

Moments later the boy returned, accompanied by a much taller figure, and a smaller one – Lucas McCain and Mark.

“Lucas, this young man was asking after you. Come on Tad, we’d best be going. Merry Christmas to you Lucas… Mark… and you too young man, Merry Christmas.” The woman and the boy hurried off into the snowy night.

Lucas McCain studied Grid’s face a moment. “Maule? Is that you?”

Perhaps the surprise in Lucas’s voice and expression came across as unfriendly – and maybe it was, just a little, or maybe Grid’s thinking was impaired by the cold… but he suddenly decided he had made a mistake coming back to North Fork.

“Never mind mister McCain, I d-don’t want nothin’. Forget it..’ He turned and walked back to his horse, wanting only to get away from Lucas and Mark McCain and this town. Nobody here would want to help him – why should they? - and he was overcome with shame and embarrassment that he had dared to hope otherwise.

“That’s Grid all right, Pa - what do you suppose he wanted?” Mark wondered. He and Lucas watched, puzzled, as Grid tried to climb up into the saddle, and didn’t make it. “Pa, look. Something’s wrong with him,” said Mark. “You think maybe he’s hurt?”

“More likely he’s half froze. Hurry up son, go get him before he makes it back onto that horse of his!” Lucas urged. Mark sprinted the short distance to where Grid was trying again to get up onto Whiskey, and again failing to do so.

“Grid! Wait! Are you okay? Where you going?”

“I’m okay. You an’ your pa, j-just forget you saw me. I’m sorry I b-bothered you. I won’t do it no more. I won’t b-bother nobody ever again.”

“You’re not botherin’ us! I think somethin’s wrong with you. We want to help you.”

Grid turned away from his horse and towards Mark, and searched his eyes for honesty. “D-do you mean that?”

“Sure I do. My pa said he thinks it’s the cold gettin’ to you.“

“I’m s-so cold, I can’t hardly think anymore, I c-can’t hardly feel my arms ‘n legs, I got no p-place to go an’ I don’t know what to do… ” His words trailed off. Lucas had walked up a few moments ago, and had seen and heard enough to know what was wrong.

“Mark, get the buckboard, quick. Maule here is near froze. We have to get him back home with us and get the chill out of him as quick as we can. I hope he hasn’t got frostbite. Tie his horse to the buckboard and let’s get going.”

“Right away Pa!” said Mark and quickly brought their wagon over. As he tied Whiskey to the back, his pa hoisted Grid up to the seat and soon they were on their way back to their ranch. Mark found a horse blanket and put it around Grid, but in his cold wet clothes, the blanket didn’t help. Grid didn’t even try to speak. He just shivered all the harder.

Back at the ranch, Mark fed and watered Whiskey out in the barn while Lucas brought Grid into the house and built a fire. Before long Grid was wrapped in a dry blanket and sitting before the fireplace, his wet clothes hanging nearby to dry. A cot was fixed for him so he could sleep near the fire overnight. Mark heated him up some leftover coffee and he drank a little but mostly he just shivered and huddled in the blanket. Eventually he warmed up enough that he told Mark and Lucas that he felt a little better and they didn’t have to sit up with him, so they put one more log on the fire and then went to bed.

II. Christmas Warmth

Christmas morning dawned cold and gray with the wind and snow continuing. Mark awoke just at sunup, dressed quickly and went to check on Grid who was still asleep. He put some logs on the fire and watched as they slowly took flame from the coals. From behind he heard the sound of his pa’s footsteps, and he turned to greet him.

“Merry Christmas, Pa.”

“Merry Christmas, son. How’s our company doing? He’s a very lucky young man. I don’t think he’d have lasted much longer out in that cold last night. When a body gets cold down to the bone like that, things start goin’ wrong inside real fast. I think maybe you’d best start cooking breakfast. When he wakes up we’re gonna want to get some food into him.”

A few hours later Grid had awakened – finally over his shivering - and felt much better after having had some eggs and bacon. Another log was put on the fire to let him keep warming up. Mark tried to make small talk with Grid, who was polite but not eager to say much.

“You warm enough Grid? I can put another log on the fire.”

“No, I’m okay, thanks.”

“All your fingers an’ toes okay? Pa thought you might have got frostbit.”

Grid clenched his hands into fists and curled his toes a few times. “’Everythin’s workin’ okay, looks like.”

“I never seen anyone who looked as cold as you did last night,” said Mark. “You looked kinda blue.”

“I never been so cold..” He thought of what might have been had he not seen the sign for North Fork. “Hate to tell you what I was fixin’ to do.”

“I’m glad you found us. Pa could see right off you needed help real bad.”

Grid looked down at the floor. “I guess I got my nerve, takin’ help from you and your pa after what I done first time I came here.”

“Maule.” Lucas stood up, walked over near where Grid sat by the fire, and crouched down beside him. “That trouble is all in the past. Right?”

“Yes mister McCain, it is, I swear.”

“Then Mark and I are going to forget about it like it never happened and I want you to do the same. Mark and I are your friends now, if you want us to be.”

“I’d like that fine,” said Grid. “Only one thing… I’d rather you’d call me Grid.”

“Grid it is. That’s settled,” said Lucas. “Say there, Grid, you didn’t happen to notice the smell of some good food from over by the stove, did you?”

“I sure did. Didn’t say nothin’ about it ‘cause I didn’t want to seem like I was invitin’ myself.”

“Well this morning while you were still sleeping Mark and I started our Christmas dinner to cookin’. We’ve got a fine big turkey, and potatoes and biscuits and corn and carrots for dinner today and as to whether you’re invited or not – we’re going to try and stuff you as full as that turkey.”

Grid couldn’t hold back a little smile at the thought. “Okay”, he said.


III. The Gift


In the afternoon when Christmas dinner was through, Lucas sat in his leather chair and smoked a cigar while Mark and Grid, half asleep with full bellies, played a slow game of checkers. After a while Lucas said “Mark, what do you say we exchange our gifts now?”

Mark’s eyes lit up. “I’ve been waiting for you to say that!” He hurried over to the Christmas tree and retrieved the two packages which were beneath it. As he walked back with them he was troubled that there were three people - but only two packages.

“I’m sorry about how the presents work out, Grid. We sure didn’t expect you’d be here on Christmas,” Mark said. “Pa an’ me, we always get each other something.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout me. I’m havin’ a real good time. Go ahead and open your presents - I’m anxious to see what’s in ‘em.” Grid really did seem to be enjoying the idea of just watching Mark and Lucas open their gifts. He had warmed up not only from the winter chill but also had relaxed enough around his hosts to start actually seeming friendly.

Mark opened his package first – pleased to find in it a fountain pen, a book about the Revolutionary War, and a big bag of rock candy. Lucas’s gift from Mark was a new Sunday tie and a box of his favorite cigars. After thanks were given back and forth, Mark excused himself, saying “I’ll be right back.” He went to the bedroom he shared with his pa and returned a moment later carrying a heavy warm coat.

“Merry Christmas, Grid!” Mark said, and dropped the coat on Grid’s lap.

“What’s this?” Grid asked.

“It’s my old coat. See, it’s still real nice but it’s getting small on me. Pa bought me a new one and it doesn’t make much sense to leave this one hanging on a hook when there’s someone who can use it. I want you to have it. Merry Christmas!”

Grid looked down at the coat, then up at Mark, then back down at the coat again. He bit his lip and said nothing.

“Don’t you like it?” asked Mark.

Grid spoke softly. “I like it fine. But I can’t take it.”

“You can’t? …well why not?” asked Mark.

Grid looked Mark straight in the eye. “Because I always pay my own way, and I don’t take charity from no one. I’m grateful to you an’ your pa for takin’ me in and feedin’ me and all, and I’m gonna find a way to pay you back for it. But this… I got no way to pay you back for a thing like this, and that makes it charity and I can’t take it.”

Mark was stunned. “You don’t have to pay us back for anything! You don’t owe us anything at all! Pa an’ me wanted to help you because you needed help, and ‘cause we wanted you to be our friend. That coat is a Christmas present. It’s not charity. It’s… well it’s just not.” Mark was out of things to say now but the hurt in his eyes told Grid even more than his words.

Even so, again Grid said “I wish I could take it. But I can’t.” He held the coat up for a moment for Mark to take it back. “You best put this back away.”

“Please, Grid….” Mark tried once more.

“I said no. Thank you for offerin’ but no.”

Lucas looked at his son, and their young guest, as they stared at each other in a complete standoff. He wasn’t sure but that Grid might hastily decide to leave, and he knew the look on Mark’s face well enough that, while he was too old to cry, his eyes were on the verge of welling up. This time it would be up to him, not to Mark, to get through to Grid.

“Grid, being on your own in the world, you’ve learned a lot of things – but it’s kept you from learning some others,” Lucas began. “There’s a big difference between charity and a gift. Charity is something people give you out of pity, because they feel sorry for you. A gift is something someone gives you because they're your friend, and they like you, and they want you to have it. If you refuse a gift from someone, it’s like telling them you don’t accept their friendship either. Mark didn’t give you that coat as charity… he gave it to you as a friend.”

Grid stared down at the coat. It was several seconds before he spoke.

“All my life, all I ever knowed was if I got something I had to pay for it. I never got somethin’ good just because someone wanted me to have it. It shames me to say, but I never had nobody who wanted to give me anythin’ at all.” He paused to think before going on. “If gettin’ that coat means Mark is my friend then sure I want it, more'n I ever wanted anything. I don’t know what else to say… ‘cept thank you.”

He looked up to see Mark studying his expression.

“Then you’ll take it?” Mark asked.

“Mark McCain, you just try and get this coat away from me…” Grid cracked a smile, then a grin, the first time Mark or Lucas had seen that happen. Mark grinned too as he reached out to shake Grid’s hand. Lucas was pleased to see that Grid finally seemed to have been won over.

“That’s better. Now we’re all on the same page,” said Lucas.

"Try on your coat and see how it fits," Mark suggested.

"Hey, that’s a good idea,” said Grid. He got up and put on the coat. It fit him well, perhaps a bit roomy but not enough to notice. He’d grow into it anyhow.

"Handsome coat you got there, young man," said Lucas. "Say, would you excuse Mark and me for just a minute?"

"Sure," said Grid.

Lucas and Mark left him buttoning up his new coat and went to the bedroom. Mark had an idea what this was about but he didn’t let on right away.

"What is it, pa?"

Lucas kept his voice down so Grid wouldn’t overhear. “Mark, you know that coat you gave Grid isn't your old one, it’s the new one we got for you in town just last week. Once you brought it out to him there wasn't anything I could say about it, but -”

“I know, Pa," Mark interrupted. "I was gonna give him my old coat at first, really I was, but when I looked at it again, well it’s so worn out I just couldn’t give someone a thing like that, not for Christmas. I can wear my old coat a while longer and I’ll save up the money to buy another new one myself. Maybe I can find a way to earn some extra money. I hope you’re not too mad at me.”

Lucas smiled. “I’m not mad at you, son. I’m so proud of you right now I could bust. In fact I’ll even buy you another new coat myself. Maybe someday when you’re my age and you have a son of your own, you’ll get the chance to understand how I feel right now. It’s worth a lot more to me than the price of a coat to find out that I have a son who understands that Christmas is about giving - and it’s worth something too, helping someone like Grid learn what friends are for.”

Mark looked relieved. “You won’t tell him I gave him my new coat, will you?”

Lucas shook his head. “No, son, I won't. If he knew it wasn't your old one, he might not accept it, and well, I want him to have it as much as you do.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

Lucas decided to change the subject. “Say, you don’t suppose you and our new friend out there might have room for some pumpkin pie about now, do you? And maybe some ice cream?”

“Yes sir!” exclaimed Mark.

“Well get on it then, boy!” laughed Lucas.

They turned to head back out of the bedroom.

“Pa, this is about the best Christmas I can think of,” said Mark.

“You know something, son? I think so too,” said Lucas.


IV. Grid’s December 26th

That evening, after the dinner and presents and ice cream and pie and afternoon dozing induced by plenty of food were all through, Lucas, Mark, and Grid sat around the fireplace.

“It’s been a real nice Christmas,” said Mark. “Nicest one I ever had.”

“That’s because we had someone we could share it with. We’re glad to have you with us, Grid.”

Grid seemed a bit sad though. “Thanks mister McCain, and you too Mark. For everythin’. I never had such a good time in all my life,” he said. “I just don’t know what I’m gonna do tomorrow. I got a nice warm coat, and I’m sure thankful to you for it … I ain’t sure if I can make it all the way back home, even so. I’m not sure what to do about that.”

“You know, I’ve been studying on that very thing,” said Lucas. “Mark, you don’t think we should turn our new friend Grid out into the winter tomorrow morning, do you?”

“You wouldn’t do that, Pa… can’t he stay with us for now?”

“Well, he’s welcome to stay on a while, sure. But Grid is a fella who likes to pay his own way, and to be honest, there’s not much to do around here needing any help, it being wintertime. I think I have an idea he might like though... a way he could earn his keep and be helping someone at the same time.”

“How?" asked Grid. Mark too was intrigued to hear the details.

“You remember the lady outside the church, the one with the boy who came and got me for you? Well that was Emily Hanson. She and her husband have a farm not too far from North Fork. You don’t remember what her husband looked like, do you?”

“I don’t recollect seein’ him last night.” Grid frowned. “I guess I was too cold to be payin’ much attention.”

Lucas smiled. “You didn’t see him because he wasn’t there. He fell off a ladder last week and he’s laid up at home with a broken leg and ankle. The only way the farm chores are gettin’ done is for their boy Tad to do ‘em. But it’s pretty hard work for someone his age, and he’s going to have to miss school for a good long time ‘til his pa mends. Mrs. Hanson sets great store by Tad’s education and she's none too pleased about his missing school, but there hasn’t been much choice of it.”

Mark spoke up. “I haven’t seen Tad at school for a few days. I was wonderin’ why not.”

“That’s why,” Lucas said. “Now the Hanson's don’t have a lot of money and I don’t expect they could pay you very much, but if you were to stay at their place and tend to the cows and chickens and keep the wood box filled and such ‘til mister Hanson is back on his feet, you’d have room and board for a few months or so, and Tad could get back to his schooling. Maybe working on a farm isn’t your favorite thing to do but it’d only be for a while and you’d be set for the winter. I’d be glad to recommend you to the Hanson’s if you want me to. Do you think you’d be interested?”

“I sure would!” Grid said. “And by the time they didn’t need me any more, it’d be Spring and I could head back home again.”

“That’s the way I figured it,” said Lucas. “Tomorrow morning we’ll take a ride over to their place and see what they think. I have a hunch they’ll be tickled to have you stay on.”

“Them and me both,” Grid nodded. “You know, after the day I had today, I think I know somethin’ about what ‘Merry Christmas’ means, ‘cause I’m sure havin’ me one!”


MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

2008

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