“Wind's picked up out there,” he said, poking the logs on the fire. “If it doesn’t let up, we’ll be snowed in by tomorrow.”
Mattie didn't answer, barely glancing up at her father-in-law as he pulled off his coat and sat in his old Afghan-draped cane chair. After rocking the baby's cradle beside her, she continued stringing popcorn on a length of twine.
Grandpa smiled and ruffled Skylar's hair. “What do you want for Christmas, Sky?”
“Nothing,” she answered.
“Well, I'll bet Santa brings you something nice.”
His words brought unexpected tears to Skylar’s eyes. “I'm too old to believe in Santa Claus anymore.”
“Too old? Nonsense, you're only seven. Of course, there's a Santa Claus.”
Skylar sat at the foot of her grandfather’s rocker, touched his knee and said, “It’s okay with me, Gramps, even if there is no Santa.”
“Baby, Santa's no more than an angel, and I guarantee there are angels right here on this earth among us. Sometimes we just don't see them. Still, if you don’t stop believing, they always show up when you need them most.”
Skylar scaled the ladder to her bed in the log cabin's loft. Kneeling on the floor, she said a prayer.
“Lord, people out there that need your help more than me, but Gramps says it's always okay to ask, so here goes. Dad’s been so moody and angry since losing his job, would you please cheer him up so he and Mom will stop fighting?”
The first one out of bed Christmas Eve morning, Skylar put a log on the coals in the fireplace and then peeked out the front door. A carpet of white blanketed the ground outside, and most of the rustic front porch. It was several miles from the nearest paved road, and only the gentle rustle of a cold morning breeze through pine boughs made any noise at all.
Shivering, she took a walk around the house to the barn, throwing a few snowballs at the shrubbery. Returning to the porch, she started back inside when she heard a cough. Glancing around, she saw a long tail sticking out from beneath the tarp covering the pile of wood on the porch. When she approached, the tail slowly began to wag. Skylar grabbed the edge of the tarp and pulled it up. Staring back at her was the biggest dog she’d ever seen. His striking tan chest highlighted a coat of solid black, and he had big floppy ears and tan spots over both eyes.
“You okay?” she asked, cautiously touching the large animal's furry coat.
The big dog continued wagging his tail and licked her hand. It was then she noticed how skinny he was, his ribs protruding through matted hair. More than just skinny, she could see from the blood caked on his rear haunch. After hugging the dog, she peeked through the door, wondering if her father was there. He wasn’t. Gramps was in the kitchen, along with her mother, nursing her baby brother as she sat in her own rocking chair.
“What you got there, Sky?” Gramps asked.
Mattie looked up and saw the large animal. “What are you doing? You can't bring that dog in here.”
“He was freezing, and he’s hurt. Please?”
“Dan will kill us all if he finds that creature in the house.”
“Mattie, the dog’s injured,” the old man said.
Mattie handed the baby to her father-in-law. “I'll put an extra blanket on Dan. Maybe he’ll stay in bed a while longer before he gets up.”
When Mattie disappeared into the room in the back, Gramps examined the cut on the dog's hind leg. “Something got this big boy pretty good. He must have been in a heck of a tangle. Sky, get me a damp rag.”
Skylar returned from the sink with the rag, and a biscuit from last night's dinner she’d dipped in bacon grease. The big dog gobbled it down in one bite as Gramps cleaned his wound and applied a coating of iodine to it.
“Where’d he come from?” she asked.
“Who knows? From the looks of those ribs, he's been on his own a while.”
Gramps and Skylar both turned when they heard the gruff words of Sky’s dad. “He was Jess Blanton’s dog. Guess he ran off when the old man died.”
“Then can we keep him?”
“Why hell no. We barely got enough around here to feed ourselves, much less that overgrown hound. Go ahead and get him out of here.”
“He’s hurt. Can't he stay in for just a little while longer?”
Before Dan could answer, Mattie said, “It’ll soon be Christmas. Why can't you lay off her, at least for today?”
Dan started to speak. Seeing an argument starting to ensue, Gramps said, “The big boy looks just like the dog you had in high school.”
Dan glanced at the dog and then back at his wife. “I said to get it out of here, and I don’t mean next week.”
Skylar was sitting on the floor by the fireplace, her arms around the big animal’s neck. When Dan approached, the dog uttered a low growl. Dan cocked his foot as if about to kick him in the ribs. Seeing what was about to occur, Skylar draped herself across the dog and held on. Mattie jumped up from her chair and grabbed her husband’s raised arm.
“Don’t do it! I swear, this time I’ll get Gramp’s shotgun and shoot you myself.”
Dan just stood there, his arm extended in a frozen arc, staring angry bullet holes into Mattie’s eyes. Gramps, moving quickly for an old man, joined Mattie and grabbed Dan’s other arm.
“Son,” he said, “We don't have much, but we got each other. You swing that fist, and you better be ready to spend Christmas alone.”
After a long pause, Dan relaxed his arm, pulled free of Mattie and Gramps and strode to the far wall. Leaning against it, he lowered his head and emitted a pained sigh.
“Now my family’s turning against me,” he said. “What do you expect me to do? We’re almost out of money, and we hardly even have a slice of bologna to eat for Christmas dinner, much less any presents. Now my daughter wants to adopt another hungry mouth.”
All the anger gone out of her, Mattie rushed to her husband, again grabbing his arm. This time to pacify him. “It’s all right, Dan. We’ll make do. We always have.”
“Yeah, well how are we going to do that?”
“Growing up, you were the best hunter in the county. Take my old shotgun and shoot some game,” Gramps said.
“I thought about it, but you only got two shells left. Not terribly generous odds, I'd say. What if I miss?”
“Well, Son, that seems to be the point. You don’t even try anymore. It’s been a month since you looked for a job. And what if you do miss? We won’t be a whit worse off than we are now.”
Dan’s wavy brown hair had grown unruly from too much time between cuttings. He no longer even bothered combing it. Mattie hadn’t said anything, not wanting to provoke him into yet another angry tirade. As if suddenly realizing his unkempt appearance, he raked his hand through his mop of hair and then returned to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him without replying to his father’s admonition.
Mattie and Gramps glanced at each other and then stared at the closed door as Skylar knelt beside the big hound, her arms around his neck as she wept softly. Finally, Gramps joined her, fingering the worn metal tag attached to the faded red collar around his neck.
“His name's Casey,” he said, rubbing the massive head that looked too large for its withered body.
“Gramps,” Skylar said. Her dark eyes were red and welling with tears she was trying, without much success, to hold back. “Please don’t make me throw him out in the snow.”
Gramps put his hand on Sky’s shoulder and shook his head. “Baby, sometimes we just don’t have control over what we want to do.”
“It’s just not fair,” Skylar said, no longer able to hold back tears that began rolling down her cheeks.
Mattie tried not to notice, turning away and grabbing a broom to sweep some invisible speck of dust under the kitchen table. Soon, the bedroom door opened. It was Dan his hair slicked down with water and combed, his two-day growth of beard freshly shaven. He was dressed in boots and an old hunting jacket, his Dad’s lever-action, single-shot twenty-gauge under his arm. The room grew quiet when he cleared his throat.
“I been doing some thinking, and there’s something I want to say. I know there’s no excuse for the way I been acting.” Skylar and Gramps exchanged knowing glances when he said, “Sky, your mom would have never said anything about it, but I hit her with my fist the other night. It wasn’t right, and I’m not proud of doing it. I love your mom. She’s the best person I’ve ever known in my life, and I promise before all of you, right here and now that it won’t happen ever again, for any reason.”
Mattie continued staring at the bare floor beneath the straw bristles of the broom, her green eyes welling with tears. Gramps started to say something, but Dan held up his hand and shook his head.
He walked to where Skylar remained on her knees beside the big dog. Squatting down, he squeezed her shoulder with one hand and rubbed the dog’s belly with the other.
“Sky, I know I haven’t always been the best dad in the world, especially here lately, but I promise I’ll work at doing better. After Christmas, I’m going to town and not coming back without a job. I want you to make a Christmas wish. Don’t tell me now, just think on it a while. Whatever it is, I promise I’ll find a way to fill it for you.”
By now, Skylar and Mattie were both hugging Dan as the big dog’s tail pounded slowly against the floor. Gramps joined the group hug. Dan finally unraveled himself from their arms and retrieved the shotgun leaning against the wall.
“I’m going hunting. With a little luck, we’ll have something more than biscuits and pork and beans for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
When Dan opened the door, Casey rolled painfully to his feet and followed him outside to the porch.
“Skylar, keep him here, by the fire.”
“Take him with you,” Gramps said. “He looks like a hunting dog. Maybe he’ll help you find some game.”
“I can do this on my own.”
“I don’t doubt that one bit. Don’t matter because we can all use a helping hand now and then,” Gramps said
Dan started to say something. Thinking better of it, he shook his head as the black and tan hound followed him through the snow. Holding open the passenger door of his old pickup, Dan waited for the dog to hop in. When he realized that the animal’s hurt leg was preventing him from doing so, he grabbed him around the chest and hoisted him into the front seat.
They were soon out of sight of the homestead’s clearing, reaching the deeply forested area surrounding the snowy mountainside. When he opened the pickup door, the hound jumped out with some difficulty. Before trudging a hundred yards, Casey took the lead, his nose to the snow, his gimpy leg less noticeable than before.
He quickly picked up the scent of a rabbit as he shuffled along beneath tall trees with branches drooping from heavy snow. Dan began seeing tracks, just as the big dog stopped and went into a perfect point. Before them in the snow was a rabbit large enough to provide the family at least a semblance of a Christmas feast. Dan raised the gun, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The firing pin clicked but failed to ignite the shell inside the gun’s chamber. The rabbit also heard the click, scurrying away into a patch of thick underbrush.
“No!” Dan said. “A dud.”
Ejecting the shell with a flip of the polished lever, he watched it sink into the snow, thoughts of returning home with empty hands crossing his mind. Then he thought about his stoic little daughter’s unusual show of tears, the fortitude of Mattie, and look of his father’s deep blue eyes—the same look he’d seen the first time when he failed to make his school’s varsity basketball squad.
He still had another shell. It was probably also a dud. He'd never know until he pointed the gun at something and pulled the trigger. The black and tan hound hadn’t finished with the hunt his tail wagging and having the time of his life. He rubbed his nose against Dan’s knee, giving him a look as if to say, we’ll get the next one. The dog’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Dan hurried after him, through the snow.
Within minutes, the hound caught the scent of something nearby. Because of the way he pawed the snow and moved his tail, Dan knew that it wasn’t another rabbit. The animal they saw next was unafraid of both of them. It was a hog—a monster-sized boar with tusks that curled out of its mouth like dual scimitars. The hog jostled the snow with its hoof and charged. Dan raised the gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger, hearing only a hollow click—his second shell also a dud. Taking an instinctual backward step, he tripped on a log and fell into the snow. Before he could get up, the boar was on him, ripping at his arms that he’d extended in defense of his face.
Casey launched himself into the fray, sinking his teeth into the boar’s throat and then holding on as the giant beast began tossing and rolling, trying to loosen the hound’s jaws from his jugular. Caught beneath the struggle, Dan tried to push the two animals off him before one of the sharp hooves crushed his chest or put out an eye. He managed to yank himself loose from the melee, knowing the heavy boar would soon beat the dog to death unless he acted quickly. Grabbing the gun by the barrel, he smashed the stock across the beast’s wiry back, continuing to flail away until little was left of the weapon except for broken wood and a bent piece of metal.
It didn’t matter. The boar had had enough. Standing with difficulty, he tried to back away from the fight, Casey’s teeth, now red with blood, still planted in its throat.
“Casey,” Dan called, jumping to his feet and going after the boar again with the remains of his shotgun. “Let him go, boy, let him go,” he yelled between whacks.
The big hound released his grip. The bloody boar wheeled around, starting away toward the shelter of nearby trees. He never made it, a bullet from a high-powered rifle felling him where he stood.
Startled by the rifle shot, Dan turned to see two men, both carrying expensive rifles and dressed in the finest hunting garb Cabela’s had to offer, enter the clearing. Before ever saying a word to him, they walked over to view the wild pig’s carcass up close.
Dan dropped to his knees and crawled to where Casey lay on his back in a pool of blood. The hound was a mess, slowly coughing and wheezing as he tried to catch his breath. Dan rubbed his big head.
“Don't you die on me.”
He didn’t notice the approach of the two men. “Are you okay?” one asked.
Dan’s coat was in shreds, his arms and face burned from cuts inflicted by the boar’s tusks and hooves. He was also covered in blood, his own, the hog’s, and Casey’s. “I’ll make it,” he said.
“More than I can say for that dog of yours,” was the emotionless reply of the younger hunter.
Before Dan could answer, the older hunter spoke instead. Something in the tone of his voice caused adrenaline—freshly drained from Dan’s body in the skirmish with the wild hog—to shoot through him again.
“We’ll give you twenty dollars to help us drag the pig back to our truck.”
“I don’t think so. It’s not your pig,” Dan said.
“We shot it, and saved your life,” the younger hunter replied.
“That dog saved my life. You two are on my property. You have no permission to hunt here. The hog is mine.”
“Your property, you say?”
“This whole mountainside. Every acre on it. It was my parent’s before me and my grandparent’s before them.”
“We trailed that boar for more than an hour,” the younger hunter said. “He’s ours.”
“The Sheriff won’t see it that way. He keeps a close eye on strangers in these parts.”
“Look,” the older hunter said. “We didn’t know it was your property. We’ll be happy to pay you for the hog.”
“How much?” Dan asked.
“Fifty,” the man answered.
“A hundred,” Dan countered, “And another twenty for me to help you drag it to your pickup.”
“Done,” the older hunter said, retrieving five twenties from a thick roll of bills in his coat pocket.
The younger man had already gone for their nearby pickup. He returned shortly, and Dan helped them hoist the heavy beast onto its flat bed. He didn’t wait to watch them rumble away, returning quickly to the bloody spot where Casey lay. Removing his coat, he wrapped it over the hound. Lifting him with some effort, he carried him the long mile back to the front seat of his own truck.
It was only a few miles to the little tourist town of Marley’s Peak, named after his own grandfather. Christmas lights were aglow on both sides of the street; tourists still window-shopping and taking pictures with their digital cameras. Dan didn’t notice. He only stopped when he reached the old two-storied Victorian home of Doc Mason, the local vet. Cradling the dog with both hands, he kicked on the door with his boot until he heard someone moving around inside. Soon, a gray-haired old man opened the door, not smiling when he saw Dan and the dog.
“That’s Jess Blanton’s dog.”
Dan nodded. “Jess is gone. Casey’s my dog now. He saved my life. Now I need you to help save his.”
“Put him on the table,” he directed after leading Dan to his operating room. “My, my,” he said when he uncovered Casey. Shaking his head, he said, “He’s lost a lot of blood. Don’t know if he’s going to make it.”
“Doc, what can I do?”
“Get me some hot water and start praying,” the old man said. “I'll do what I can, but it don't look good.
Skylar awoke Christmas morning at her usual early hour. She wasn’t the only one awake in the house. The first thing she saw was a large holiday tree decorated with strings of popcorn and crowned with a golden angel. How wonderful, she thought. Then the odor of a sumptuous meal, cooking on the kitchen stove, reminded her it was Christmas. When she heard the whimper of a large hound by the fireplace, she began to cry.
“Casey,” she said, rushing to where he lay. “What happened to you?”
Casey’s tail thumped slowly against the hardwood floor as he licked the little girl’s hand.
“He’s banged up pretty good, but he’s going to be okay,” Gramps said from his rocking chair. “Your Dad’s pretty banged up too. He hasn’t told me yet what happened. Guess we’ll have to wait to find out.”
Three hastily wrapped presents sat beneath the tree, apples, pears and shelled nuts in bowls on the kitchen table. Mattie stood at the stove, cooking bacon and eggs in her old cast-iron skillet. For a moment, Skylar thought that she had died and gone to heaven.
An hour had passed before the bedroom door opened, and Dan appeared. He strolled stiffly to the stove where he gave his wife a hug and a lingering kiss. After savoring a sip from the cup of coffee Mattie handed him, he walked over to Skylar and the dog, knelt down beside them and kissed her on the forehead. It was then she saw the fresh cuts on his face and hands.
“Dad, what happened?”
Dan quickly recounted the tale. “That dog doesn’t have a lick of quit in him,” he said, rubbing the hound’s head. “Gramps is always talking about angels. Yesterday, he was my angel. He's part of the family now. If someone's gonna go hungry in this house, it'll be me before it's him.”
Gramps joined them by the fire, resting his hand on his son’s shoulder. “A man came by the house this morning. Wanted to know if we’d consider giving him a hunting lease on the property. Said they would pay top dollar. I told him that he had to come back later and talk to you about it.”
Dan grinned. “We’ll work on that later. Now Sky, what can I do to fulfill your Christmas wish?”
The black and tan’s tail thumped slowly against the hardwood floor as Skylar hugged his big neck, and then her dad’s. Smiling, she said, “You already did.”