Updated: Nov 28
The most magical gifts are unexpected.
It’s Christmas in Port Essington. Jimmy Downing and Oscar Yates have settled into their lives after returning from Telegraph Creek at the end of the summer. They have jobs, a new dog named Blaze and a real chance at happiness and success.
A letter to their friends in Telegraph Creek has gone unanswered, and there is a chance that it might never have been received. All they can do is wait—and hope that all is well.
With the help of Clarence and Irene, Jimmy arranges a special surprise for Oscar, and when things don’t go as planned, he wonders if the holiday will measure up to his expectations. But the Christmas season in Northern British Columbia is magical, and fate might have a surprise in store for Jimmy, too.
I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.
~ A Christmas Carol
Miss June Blaise
The Angel Rest House
Telegraph Creek, British Columbia
Dear Miss June, Cal, Maggie, Peter, Lizzie, Sam and everyone we know in Telegraph Creek and Agnes Hill,
We hope this letter gets to you in time for Christmas.
We made it back to Port Essington and our fine house without injury, thank the Lord. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see it standing there, just as we’d left it, with Sprite, Oscar’s cat, out front waiting for us. And how nice it was to see our good friends, Carson and Tim, then Irene and Clarence the next day. Irene and Oscar are like two peas in a pod, plotting together against me and Clarence half the time. It is mighty amusing.
Oscar and me, we got jobs, because we needed to start earning an honest living. Oscar’s working with Carson in Tim’s saloon as a server, bus boy and barkeep, and he’s perfect for it. The customers love him, and why wouldn’t they? Everybody loves Oscar as soon as they meet him, I reckon. I know I did.
I’m working in the general store for Mr. Samuel Lawson. He’s a good boss and he knows how to run a good store, let me tell you. I’m learning a lot from the way he does things. He’s got me working the books some, too, since I’m good with figures. But I do just about anything and everything there and I like that, because I don’t get bored. I’m not as good with customers as Oscar, but I do okay, and I like helping folks find what they need.
We got a dog! Mr. Lawson’s friend’s setter had puppies, and we got a hold of one of them and he’s a beaut. Reckon he knows it, too. He’s red from top to tail, and we named him Blaze. A purebred Irish setter! Never figured we’d get a hold of a purebred dog, but they said they were glad to give him a home with us, and we were glad to get him. We were planning on naming him Buck after the dog in The Call of the Wild, but it didn’t suit him at all. He’s Blaze now, and that’s a good name, as he’s bright and warm and loving. Sprite the cat tolerates him but keeps him in his place. He comes hunting with me and he’s learning to fetch my kills, like his breed is made for. Oscar and Blaze are fast friends, and he’s got something to love now that he don’t have Onyx.
Oscar is doing well, and I’m going to get him to write a bit at the end of this letter. His printing’s coming along fine, and I’m sure he’s got something to say. He always does! Anyway, I sure hope everyone there is healthy and doing fine. I hope Cal and Maggie’s farm is coming along, and the children are healthy and happy. I’ve enclosed some pennies for each of them. Maybe you can put them in their Christmas stockings? You can say they’re from Father Christmas, or you can tell them they’re from us, I don’t care, as long as they get them. There’s a new halter for Onyx, too. Oscar’s getting over that loss, and he’s glad he left her with the children and Cal and Maggie.
I’m going to sign off now, but I hope you get this letter and I hope you have time to send us a letter back, for we’d love to hear from you!
This is Oscar.
How is Onyx? I hope she’s some use to you all, and that Lizzie and the children are loving on her, as she’s used to that. I miss her, truly but I know she’s better where she is for lots of reasons.
Anyway, I got a new dog, although I see Jimmy told you. He’s my new friend and he’s just as wild and silly as me. We have lots of fun together and we like to annoy Jimmy, so that’s amusing. His name is Blaze, and he’s an Irish setter. He’s so pretty—like me! Jimmy says we’ll get me a new horse after Christmas, so I’m pretty happy about that.
I hope Cal and Maggie are enjoying being parents together. Those kids are something else, and I miss them.
Our second December in Port Essington, British Columbia, came in with a storm.
The wind shrieked and battered the wooden walls of our two-story house, and pellets bounced against the windows. ’Twas so loud it woke me from a dream, and I blinked in the darkness and reached for Oscar.
“What is it?” he mumbled into the pillow.
“Snowstorm. Go back to sleep.”
Oscar grunted and turned o’er.
I lay there, snug in my long underwear and our combined heat under the quilts as the storm raged outside. I was glad this house was new and had been built to very specific requirements. She was a solid thing with no cracks in her walls or leaks in her strong roof. Compared to spending winter in our tiny kitchen the past year, this was a huge improvement.
We also had an addition to the family. Since Oscar had chosen to leave his beloved mare with Cal and Maggie’s children in Agnes Hill, we’d gotten our hands on an Irish setter pup, and he was lying on the quilt at our feet. He wasn’t a pup no more, and he was half on top of my legs. I wasn’t complaining, though. Blaze helped to keep us warm and safe in our small home, and we were happy to have him. ’Twas important to have a dog, I figured, in the wilderness. You never knew what you might have to deal with out here. Our cat, Sprite, was curled near Oscar’s pillow, keeping her distance from Blaze. She tolerated him but they weren’t exactly fast friends.
Cuddling with Oscar and the animals in the darkness while the storm raged outside gave me a sense of peace and comfort and security. I lay there for a long time in contemplation of that. I had not known many moments like this in my past. Always on the run or looking for the next hit with the gang, having to bow to the designs of Spook and Whitlaw and the others, sheltering out in the open or in abandoned buildings and huts, gathering wood for a fire or huddling in the dark to evade notice… ’Twasn’t a life I missed, especially now.
I was surrounded by good fortune and I was learning to tolerate it. The sense that it might be torn away at any moment was beginning to lessen, though I imagined ’twould always lurk in the background. But I was learning to ignore the sense of dread and focus on enjoying what I had. For if ’twere to be taken, I wouldn’t want to think I’d wasted a single moment of any of it.
Christmas was approaching, and I wanted to do something even more special for Oscar this year. Last year I’d gotten him an engraved pocket watch, but this year I wanted to gift him something even better. I had an idea, but I needed to talk to Carson and Tim, to see if they had any leads on a horse for sale or one that needed a home that I could get at a good price. We were careful with our money now that we’d blown through the take that we’d felt entitled to from them outlaws, and that had paid for our house and all the practical things in it, like the iron stove, the sink pump and the good materials that made it sound and sturdy.
Now we had jobs and we earned every penny like respectable men. The folks in town assumed we were good friends—almost brothers. We’d kept the truth of our relationship hidden from all but our closest acquaintances. Clarence and Irene Trelawny, our neighbors, shared a similar secret and knew what Oscar and I were to each other. And Carson knew—and probably Tim—but we weren’t sure of that. To everyone else we were simply two stubborn bachelors without the want of wives or intimate relationships with women. We made a show of being fond of our isolation and independence, and folks in town didn’t challenge it much.
Oscar had a job in Tim Jensen’s saloon as a server and bar keep, and he was loved by most of the clientele, which was to be expected. Why, who wouldn’t be charmed by him? I’d fallen for Oscar within a day of meeting him, even though he’d been in dire straits and as ornery as a cornered cat when we’d met. It hadn’t taken but a hot bath to make him seem human and vulnerable and lost, and I’d been helpless to resist his nature. How the folks in Dawson City had treated him so vilely I’d never understand, except it showed what could happen when people spread lies and spoke badly of others. His reputation had been slandered by one man, and the townsfolk had turned their backs on him, thinking he was seducing their husbands with his ‘evil’ proclivities.
Well, now Oscar had me to protect him from all that, and if he was ever a victim of slander again, I’d be standing right beside him, and we’d battle it together. Oscar would never be on his own again—not while I was alive.
I’d got myself a job at the General Store, what with my background in delivering supplies to Mr. Henson and being generally agreeable and a hard worker. Oscar and I drove into town around noon and went to work at these separate places. Once I was done with my shift at the store, I wandered o’er to Jensen’s and sat with a beer while Oscar worked another couple of hours. Then we had a bite to eat on the house and a beer each then went home. It worked out real well, and we were lucky our employers made it work for us. Now we had money coming in every week and we could live in a modest level of comfort. Why, we even had bank accounts! One for each of us, so’s we’d have our own little nest eggs and t’wouldn’t look suspicious.
I was glad we’d invested that tainted haul we’d looted off Spook and Whitlaw in the house and setting up our lives here, like Miss June had suggested when I’d told her of my conflicted feelings in taking it. But after what they’d done and what I’d had to do to get Oscar back, she’d said we deserved all that money, and we should use it toward a future together. We’d come to Port Essington in search of Oscar’s uncle and discovered he’d passed and left an abandoned homestead, and everything had just worked out as if God approved of us and our lives.
I lay there listening to the howl of the wind—and Oscar’s soft snoring and Blaze’s occasional grunts in his sleep—and my heart filled with contentment. We’d gotten to wearing our warm red union suits again, and I was glad we had them.
But Oscar needed a new horse, and I aimed to get him one. And if I could make it a Christmas surprise somehow, well, that would be the most wonderful thing. As ’twas now, we had to hitch Poke, our strong mule, and Dixie together as a sorely mismatched team. But they were agreeable animals, and even though they looked a mite strange together, they got us to town and back every weekday, and for that I was grateful. I’d have to exchange the wagon wheels for sled runners before Monday, I reckoned, since the snow would cover the ground, and there wasn’t a road to our place way out here—only a wagon track in the warmer months. We’d bought a good wagon with the last of the stolen money, and it had come with runners that could be bolted on if the wheels were removed, so that we had a means of conveyance to get us back and forth to town or anywhere we wanted to go in any kind of weather. There was even a way to get to Clarence and Irene’s through the thick pine forest, but usually we rode Dixie, with Oscar behind me, now that he’d left his beloved horse, Onyx, with Cal and Maggie and the children in Agnes Hill.
Miss June had asked us to go to Telegraph Creek this past summer, to help her find our friend Caliope—Cal—who had gone off to get married and disappeared. Well, it had turned out that Cal had killed her new husband—the father of the three children who called her ‘Momma’ now—because he’d terrorized and berated them and treated them like dirt, and there weren’t no other way of getting him out of their lives.
When we’d gone to Telegraph Creek at the request of Miss June, proprietress of The Angel Rest House, to try to find Cal, none of us had expected to find her looking after the three young’uns, telling tales about a husband gone to look for work and a shadow of her former self. When we’d learned the truth about what had happened, had assured Cal that we didn’t blame her for what she’d done, that she’d saved those children and herself from a life of cruelty and torment and they were lucky to have her as their momma, she started to come back to herself—that lovely person we’d met during our first stay at the Angel. Those three children—Peter, Lizzie and Samuel—had taken to Cal like they were born of her body, and even though that wouldn’t ever have been possible, Cal loved them the same. ’Twas another instance that made me wonder if there truly was a higher power controlling things. But then, why would that power have made things so rough in the first place?
I didn’t claim to know the answer, but I had some faith, I supposed, which was rich for a man who’d spent most of his life in an unholy situation, runnin’ with outlaws. But I was making amends for that now and I was glad we’d been able to help.
I must have drifted off again, lulled by the screaming of the wind.
When I woke there was a deep and steady silence that could only mean the blizzard had stopped and a thick layer of sound-absorbing snow covered everything. Oscar was fast asleep still and the room was lighter, so it must be morning. I checked my pocket watch, and it said ’twas seven twenty. The horse and mule would be waiting on breakfast, so I snuck out of bed as quiet as I could and grabbed my clothes, calling Blaze to come with me, then pulled the door almost shut to block some of the sound from downstairs. We made our way to the first floor where I got Blaze some of his kibble in a bowl and dressed by the stove, then added more wood and got a good fire going to warm up the place proper. The stovepipe went up through our bedroom above the kitchen, so that would warm up Oscar, too, since I was no longer there to provide my body heat.
I filled a glass with water from the kitchen pump and drank it down. I’d make a pot of coffee later. When I was done, I put the glass by the sink and noticed that Sprite was slinking down the stairs. She went to her bowl and meowed, so I scraped some of the chicken from the night before into it.
Blaze smelled the chicken and headed over, but I told him to leave it and to come with me. As soon as I opened the front door, he was out streaking through the snow and finding a spot to relieve himself. I laughed as afterward, he jumped and cavorted, excited and pleased by the thick snowfall. ’Twas his first time seeing this much snow, and he seemed to like it.
I made a quick visit to the privy myself. We kept a chamber pot under the bed for times we needed to go in the night, but I could generally hold out till morning.
Blaze played in the snow as I shoveled a proper path to the privy and one to the stables, a bright red streak of fur running back and forth in all that pure white. When I opened the door to the barn, I whistled, and he came in with me, whining a greeting to the horse and the mule. Dixie nickered, and Poke snorted at us, as if they were saying ‘What took you so long?’.
“Now, now, you’ll be fed in a moment. Hold on to your hats.”
The barn smelled good—of horses and fresh hay—and I moved Dixie into Poke’s stall so I could clean hers, then did the same in reverse. Then I gave them their grain and stood there watching them eat while the world came awake around us. Blaze settled on his blanket in the corner and licked the snow from his paws while I worked.
’Twas fine to have such a solid, warm barn for the animals, and I was grateful to be able to provide what they needed to be healthy and happy. We’d be adding another horse if I had my way.
We’d decided to keep our money separate and pay an equal amount each month toward supplies and feed and all the other things we needed. I thought ’twas important for Oscar to earn his own money and have the means to spend it how he wanted. I had a suspicion he was putting some away, as I was, to save for a new horse, and mayhap he was waiting until he had enough to buy one on his own. A part of me thought maybe I should wait and let him get one for himself. Only that might take a while, and I could tell Oscar was hurting from the loss of his close relationship with Onyx. I’d been jealous of it, at first, but once I’d realized he needed someone to talk to besides me about personal things, e’en if ’twas a dumb animal that wouldn’t be able to understand, I’d seen how important that was to him. And I hoped he could have it again with another horse.
We’d never be able to replace Onyx, but I hoped we could find a horse that he’d warm to just as much. I wanted to see that sooner rather than later. ’Twas important for Oscar’s independence, too, to be able to ride out on his own, and even though I’d told him to take Dixie if he wanted to go riding, he still thought of her as my horse, and that held him back. And I missed going out riding, the two of us, on horses, just like we’d done on our long journey to Port Essington, when we’d had to abandon the wagon shortly after leaving Dawson City. The city boy had learned to ride from my teaching, and his horse’s patience, and I missed seeing him riding beside me, e’en though ’twas nice to have him warming the saddle blanket behind me, too. He needed his own horse, and that was that.