By Daniel 'Chip' Ciammaichella
The storm had blown in quickly from the north that Christmas Eve, turning the rolling grasslands south of Raton into an endless blanket of white. The snow and ice had transformed the pinon, cedar and oak-brush into fine crystal sculptures, and the majestic peaks of the Sangre de Cristos were obliterated from view by the fusillade of snowflakes, driven by a biting north wind in the dim late afternoon light. As Elizabeth Porter eased her Ford Bronco down the I-25 off-ramp, west on to U.S. Highway 64, she was both enchanted by the savage beauty of the snow peppered northeastern New Mexico landscape, and irritated by the terrible condition of the road. There were other ways to get home to Cimarron, 40 miles to the west, but all were many miles out of the way and the roads would be in even worse condition.
It had been a hard day, and Elizabeth wanted nothing more than to get home to her two young daughters, Jessie and Megan. Her feet were sore from waiting tables all day at the El Matador restaurant, her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep and worry, and the remains of a headache that had plagued her the entire day made sure that it kept its presence known. On top of it all, she missed her husband terribly. Bobby was the reason she couldn't sleep at night; he was halfway around the world in a little country called Kuwait, preparing to go to war. Sleep only brought Elizabeth nightmares of the worst. As she drove her Bronco down the snow-covered highway, Elizabeth held on to her dim hopes that somehow Bobby would be allowed to call home on Christmas. He had been able to call only twice in the months since his Guard unit shipped out to the Middle East. She missed the soothing deepness of his voice so much - it always managed to calm her no matter how tired she was from working 12 hours a day or how worried she was about the pile of bills that never seemed to dwindle.
Elizabeth made her way slowly but surely closer to Cimarron, and a hot bath. The snowflakes danced like shooting stars in the beams of her headlights, as the dim light of the day succumbed to the darkness of night. She passed the Colfax bar, now closed for the winter, and the only habitable building in what used to be the town of Colfax. She continued past the road to the ghost town of Dawson, once a thriving mining town, crossed the Vermejo river and then the Santa Fe railroad tracks that took the coal trains in and out of the mine up in York Canyon. The deserted white house at the road that entered VanBremmer canyon, leading to the magnificent Vermejo Park ranch, was the last building she would see until she crossed the Ponil river bridge into Cimarron. She knew she was almost home, but tried to keep her tired eyes alert and focused - deer, antelope and elk often ventured out into the road, causing many accidents. Ted Turner had buffalo on the Vermejo ranch now too... she cringed at the thought of hitting one of those monsters.
While her eyes were focused for signs of animals in the road, the sight of a man dressed up as Santa Claus, waving at her madly in the middle of the road took her totally by surprise. By the time the image of the man registered in her mind she had to slam hard on the brakes, fish-tailing wildly before finally coming to a sliding stop mere inches from his rotund belly. The man just stood still in front of her for a moment, his eyes wide like a deer caught in the headlights, not yet sure that he was still in one piece. Elizabeth was angry at first, but what she saw standing in her headlights quickly turned her anger into uncontrollable giggling. The man finally seemed to regain some portion of composure, and walked weak-kneed to Elizabeth's window. He tapped on the window lightly, like a cop fixing to write a ticket to a speeding motorist. Tears were now running down Elizabeth's cheeks and she was still giggling as she rolled her window down.
"Of all the people I could find in my time of need, I find one who seems to derive pleasure from running down Santa Claus."
His eyes were the deepest blue Elizabeth had ever seen, and they seemed to twinkle with merriment in contrast to the gruff tone of his voice. She wiped the tears from her eyes and stifled her giggles before replying.
"I'm so very sorry sir, I wasn't laughing at you... at first. In fact I'm not sure if I was laughing or crying, you gave me quite a fright!" Then when I got a look at you, all dressed up in that Santa suit, just standing there in my headlights like a man who just saw his own ghost..." She began giggling again.
The white-bearded man let out a short chuckle, then his manner turned serious.
"No harm done young lady, but I do need your help, I am in a terrible predicament!" I must get to a veterinarian as fast as possible!"
Elizabeth could see the concern and worry that clouded the twinkle in his eyes, and immediately reached over to open the passenger side door.
"Get in out of the cold and the wind and tell me what the problem is. Thank God I didn't wreck my car...or you."
The chubby man in the Santa suit moved quickly to the other side of the car, slipping and falling square in his backside as he crossed through the headlights, causing Elizabeth to bite her lip to keep from giggling uncontrollably. She tried to avoid looking at him; afraid she would burst out into laughter, as he finally seated himself inside, brushing snow from his bright red suit
"Are you all right? That was quite a fall you took out there..." Elizabeth choked back another giggle.
"Yes I'm fine," the old man retorted, his cheeks red with embarrassment, " can you get me to a vet, if its not too much trouble. My boys are very sick."
"Boys? Your boys need a vet?"
"No, my reindeer of course. I call them my boys." The look on the old man's face was very matter-of-fact.
Elizabeth smiled. "I suppose you're going to tell me that you are Santa Claus, and you won't get your presents delivered tonight because your reindeer are sick." she asked jokingly. She assumed he was a rancher, perhaps from Vermejo. They raised buffalo, and down near Logan some ranchers raised ostriches, so why not reindeer.
"Precisely. They were fine when we left the North Pole. I let them graze for a bit back up near Valle Vidal, I think they may have eaten some coyote poison or something."
Elizabeth pressed her foot to the accelerator as much as she dared, wanting to get into Cimarron as fast as possible. She was wondering if she should have allowed this man into her vehicle. He was obviously either drunk or crazy. She sniffed inconspicuously for the scent of alcohol. She hoped he wasn't dangerous too. She didn't speak, staring intently at the road ahead.
"Miss, I don't believe Cimarron has a veterinarian that I can recall. I really do need to get to a vet."
Elizabeth tried to be polite. "No we don't have a vet and the nearest one is 30 miles the other way, in Raton. I can't drive all the way back there, but I'll gladly drop you off at our police station and let Chief Allen help you from there."
"My reindeer are very sick - they could die if we don't hurry. I'm sure you could drive me there much faster. Please, I will give you anything you want, just get me to a vet."
Elizabeth could sense the concern and desperation in the old man's voice. She turned to look at him, their eyes meeting for a brief second before she quickly returned her gaze to the road.
"You are afraid of me...you don't believe that I'm Santa Claus, do you?"
Elizabeth didn't want to anger the Santa-clad stranger. She remained silent, concentrating on her driving.
"It's all right young lady, I understand. Not too many people believe in me anymore, and I can't blame you for doubting me. A young woman alone at night has good reason to be fearful of strangers these days. The world sure has changed, and not for the better. I'm sorry to put you out. I am so afraid for my old friends that I forgot my manners. Yes, you can just drop me off at your police station. I'm sure the officer will believe me and do everything necessary to save my reindeer." He slumped down in the seat and stared worriedly at the road ahead.
Elizabeth didn't speak. The man's obvious worry bothered her. Maybe he wasn't dangerous...just a little crazy. She remembered what Bobby used to always say; 'Darlin', sometimes you gotta be a little crazy to keep yourself sane.'
She had seen plenty of sick and dying animals in this country, but could never get used to the sight of them. Now here she was, letting some poor animals die out in the cold, because she was afraid of some old man who thought he was Santa Claus.
"Like hell!" Elizabeth exclaimed as she slammed the brakes and cranked the steering wheel, forcing the Bronco to slide completely around before she stopped then continued in the opposite direction, back towards Raton. "Chief Allen will lock you up and throw away the key. Look, I don't know who you are, but whether you are who you say you are or just a crazy old man, I can't bear the thought of some poor animal dying out there in the cold. I see no good coming from you being locked up on Christmas Eve just so I won't be late for my appointment with a hot bathtub."
The old man looked at her, startled at the sudden acrobatics of the vehicle and her words. Then the twinkle came back into his eyes and he began making small talk as the Bronco made it's way down the snow-covered highway towards Raton.
The snow had subsided into an occasional flake here and there as Elizabeth and the old man pulled into the driveway of Dr. Ashley, Raton's local veterinarian. The drive had been uneventful, and Elizabeth found the old man to be a charming and entertaining conversationalist. He told her wonderful stories that, true or not, lifted her spirits and made her laugh. She told him about her life and her family, of how proud she was of her daughters and how much she missed her husband. He listened intently and offered nothing but kind words and encouragement. Elizabeth had to admit that she liked this old man...and maybe he wasn't so crazy after all.
Since she knew the doctor, Elizabeth accompanied the old man up the walk as the porch light came on.
"Hello Ron, " she said cheerfully when a kindly middle-aged man opened the door, "I'm sorry to bother you, but this gentleman here has some very sick animals and needs your help."
Dr. Ashley looked curiously at the white-bearded man in the Santa suit, as he explained what had happened to his reindeer. Elizabeth noticed the doubt and amusement in the doctor's eyes while the old Santa spoke. There was a moment of awkward silence before the doctor spoke.
"Elizabeth, what do you have to say about this? Is this some kind of joke? Do you think this man is telling the truth? Do you think he's Santa Claus?
Elizabeth did not answer right away. She looked at the old man for a moment, meeting his twinkling eyes, which gave her the courage to answer.
"Ron, I know this sounds crazy, but I drove this man over thirty miles to get here, and while I can't say I know him well, I have come to trust him. I can't say for sure whether he is Santa Claus, but I can tell you this..." she paused for a moment, taking a deep breath, "if there really is a Santa Claus, I believe this man is him." There, she said it.
The veterinarian didn't look convinced.
"Young lady, I think you've been hitting the egg-nog a bit too hard this evening, but no matter. If there are sick animals out there, I need to tend to them. It's not like I've never been out in the middle of nowhere on a cold winter night, tending to a sick horse or heifer. It's part of my job and I'll treat this man as I treat any rancher around here, since you vouched for him. Let me get my coat and my bag..."
As the doctor went back into the house, the old man turned to Elizabeth.
"Thank you my dear. I know you don't really believe in me, but I appreciate all of your help."
He kissed her lightly on the cheek, his beard tickling her nose. She looked at him with a hurt look on her face.
"I never said anything of the sort. I admit, I'm not sure if Santa Claus exists, but I meant what I said. If Santa Claus does exist, you are he. I wish you good luck and I hope everything turns out OK. You're in good hands with Dr. Ashley and I have two girls to get from the babysitter...not to mention an appointment with a hot bath. Goodbye...Santa, I hope your reindeer get well. "
She began walking back to her Bronco, but the old man jogged after her, catching up as she opened the door.
"Wait, I promised that I'd give you anything you wanted if you helped me tonight, and you have helped me very much. Tell me, what do you want for Christmas?"
Her heart melted at his kindness, but she declined the offer.
"The only thing I can think of this Christmas is my husband, and I doubt that even Santa Claus could bring him home to me. A phone call from him would be nice...but no, there is nothing I want in return for helping you out tonight. Isn't that what Christmas is all about...people helping people? A country song I like does come to mind though. If you really are Santa, just do what you do... the happiness and cheer your bring is worth any minor trouble, but if you're not, please do something kind for someone else in need. Don't let the chain of love end with you."
Before the old man could reply she got into the still-running Bronco, backed down the driveway and began the long drive home to her girls.
Elizabeth set down her cup of tea and wiped the tears from her eyes as Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed joined in a chorus of 'Auld Lang Syne' on the television set...in black-and-white of course. She leaned forward in her worn but comfortable rocking chair and reluctantly put the phone back on the table. The telephone had not been out of her sight since she returned home from Raton the night before. The phone was within arms reach when she fixed dinner for her girls, as they ate popcorn and watched the TV and as she read them 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' at bedtime. The cordless phone was in the pocket of her robe as she retrieved the presents from under their hiding places and placed them under the Christmas tree, and she held it close to her as she fell asleep in her bed. It was back in her robe pocket again when Jessie and Megan woke her at 6 AM with excited shrieks that Santa Claus had come, and she held it tight in her hands as the girls opened their presents.
She didn't leave the house that Christmas Day, not only because she didn't want to miss a possible phone call from Bobby, but also because she just didn't feel like being around people at all today. There had been plenty of invitations to dinner, but Elizabeth did not want to face the pity and sympathy that her family and friends could not help but feel for her. She stole glances at the phone on the wall every few moments as she fixed the girls a nice Christmas dinner, trying to make it ring through sheer will. She kept her vigil the rest of the day until she tucked her daughters, now worn out from playing with their gifts, into bed that night.
She had kept a happy face for her girls, but now the musical ending of 'It's a Wonderful Life' brought the tears streaming down her face. She always cried at the ending, but this time the tears were different. They came from a mixture of emotions; self sorrow that Bobby was not here with her, worry that he was alright, and a fading hope that the man she had met the night before had really been Santa Claus, and would somehow make it possible for Bobby to call home. As she had driven home from Raton that strange night, she had managed to convince herself that he might have indeed been Santa, and her faith in that notion had made it possible for her to make it cheerfully through Christmas day. Now, she was beginning to second-guess that faith, but not letting go.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. She bundled up her robe as she opened the door to find her brother, Bill, standing there in his best duster and Stetson, his 16-year-old daughter Kim at his side. "Merry Christmas, sis! Missed you at dinner, but thought I come over and take you out dancing...they got a heck of a party goin' down at the Kit Carson. I ain't two-stepped with my baby sister in years, so what do you say? Kim here will be glad to watch your girls."
Elizabeth smiled and leaned over to give them both a hug and a kiss.
"Merry Christmas to you both too! I'm so glad to see you. I'm sorry I didn't come to dinner, I just didn't feel very well. Come in before you both freeze!"
"So you'll come?"
Elizabeth smiled sweetly. "No Bill, not tonight. I'll take a rain check though, and you're both welcome to come in for some hot chocolate."
Bill persisted. "Come on Lizzie, you need a night out. Remember the last time we went to the Kit for Christmas? It was me and Jen and you and Bob..." He stopped suddenly as if he had cussed.
"No Bill, I'm sorry. I'm kind of expecting Bobby to call. I hope you understand."
"Sure sis, I understand. Heck them guys got it made over there. In my days in the Corps we never got to call home from 'Nam, times sure have changed. It's OK, we'll just leave you be, I know how much you miss him...and I bet I know how much he misses you."
Elizabeth hugged him tight and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
"Thanks big brother. I promise I'll come party with you for New Years next week. Give Jen my love and tell her Merry Christmas for me."
She let go of her brother and gave her niece another hug. She closed the door slowly as they bade goodbye and made their way back down the walk. After closing the door she walked to the kitchen to put the kettle back on for another cup of tea. Before she got halfway there was another knock on the door. She walked quickly back, now a bit irritated and opened the door. Bill's large frame filled the doorway.
"Are you sure I can't change your mind, sis?"
Elizabeth let out a loud sigh. "No Bill, please I'm tired..."
"What if we let this guy come along with us?"
Bill stepped aside to reveal the figure of a tall, handsome soldier; his irresistible cowboy smile made her heart almost stop.
She flung herself out the doorway and into his arms, almost knocking her brother into the shrubs. Her husband picked her up into his arms and carried her back into the house, returning the rapid-fire kisses she was planting on him. Bill started to follow, then stood there for a second; smiling, before thinking better of it and sauntering back down the walk.
"I don't think you two need no company tonight." He quipped half aloud.
After a time Elizabeth stopped showering kisses all over Bobby's face and stood back to look at him, still not convinced she wasn't dreaming. She kissed him again to be sure before leading him to the kitchen to feed him.
"How did you get home? Did Iraq surrender? I haven't watched the news in days...I couldn't."
"Well darlin', the how is easy, I sat on a lot of planes, it's the why that I'm not really sure of."
She gave him a mock icy stare.
"Why? You mean just coming home to the kids and I for Christmas wasn't a good enough reason?"
Bobby laughed. "No darlin, I can't think of any better reason than that. Heck I'd kick butt on Saddam's whole army myself to be here with you. I mean that I can't figure out why they let me come home."
"Maybe they finally figured out that I need you here more than they need you way over there?"
"Not hardly sweetie", he grinned, "it was the weirdest thing though. This morning I was just fixin' to pay a guy fifty bucks for his spot in line for the phone, when the sarge grabs me and tells me that I'm wanted in the HQ ASAP. I get there and I'll be ****ed if ole General Swartzkopf himself ain't there...and he was lookin' for me. He tells me that orders have come down from way up the chain of command to get me home ASAP. Funny, the general ain't got many bosses...let's see there's General Powell and the Secretary of Defense and the President... Anyway next thing I know I'm being hustled onto a 727 and after lots of changing planes I ended up in Albuquerque, where a chopper was waiting to bring me to Crews field. Chief Allen was waiting there and drove me home. He said the Governor had called him personally!"
"Didn't anyone tell you why?"
"Well I asked the General why. He told me all that he was at liberty to say was 'Merry Christmas from Santa Claus'. I guess they didn't want me to know. I was so afraid that something had happened to you and the kids, but the General assured me that you were all fine."
Elizabeth was silent for a moment, then a grin spread across her face.
"I guess he was Santa after all..." she mumbled.
"What was that darlin'? Sorry my hearing is shot from all this travelling."
"Nothing honey, just so glad you are home. Let's go to bed and snuggle."
They smiled and gazed deeply into each other's eyes before walking hand in hand to the bedroom. As they left the room they could not hear the anchorwoman from Albuquerque on the late TV news show:
"Next, at eleven, we'll bring you the story of a Raton veterinarian who claims he saved Christmas, by treating Santa's sick reindeer on Christmas Eve..."
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