the true spirit of christmas

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic






Based on the poem “The True Spirit of Christmas”




Susan O’Connell






Copyright PAu2-992460, 2005

712 Laxford Road

San Jacinto, CA 92583

















The grey clouds hung low over the Bitterroots which was a sure sign of an early winter. But when the sun managed to peak through the gloom and send a shaft of light down onto the layer of snow that dusted the top of the range, it could blind a man. Yes winter was coming to Virginia City.


In 1865 the small clearing of Alder Gulch had turned this Blackfoot hunting ground into part of what was later to become the Montana Territory, producing enough gold per day to have the Government consider Virginia City for the Territorial Capitol. Now in just two short years the land around the creek for about a mile in every direction looked like a bald spot nestled in the dense forest that had escaped a white man’s ax for thousands of years. Every tree was sacrificed to provide the nearly one thousand ramshackle shelters, sluice boxes, fuel for heat and Virginia City’s first permanent buildings; a bakery for bread and a saloon for other much needed comforts.


For now the Bale of Hay Saloon was a perfect retreat to escape the ever increasing chill. Run by twin sisters Kay, who managed the bar and Gay who managed the activities that took place upstairs.


Michael Francis Tulliver; Tully to his friends, had come to the gulch after the first boom was just about played out. He had a good spot that yielded some choice color but those discoveries were few and far between. At sixty-five Tully was finding the work harder each day. His back would ache and his fingers grow cold and numb from Alder’s frigid water. He had been spending more time at the Bale of Hay lately, buying drinks with what little dust he had managed to recover from the Gulch’s dwindling supply. Kay’s good Irish whiskey warmed his old bones and although he no longer partook, Gay’s lovely ladies gladdened his old heart and brought back memories of his younger days; of sweet, innocent girls dressed in white, smelling of honeysuckle, who encouraged with fluttering eyelashes from behind fluttering fans. And in later years with some of life’s lessons painfully learned, he recalled the willing, wild women who taught him how to be a man. But with his almost daily appearance at the Bale Tully was getting a reputation as a drunk. He could hold a lot but when he finally reached his limit he could become pretty unpredictable. He usually spent those nights sleeping it off in the Bale’s store room which was fine with him since the only place he had to call his own was a tent sitting right by his claim. With no trees to help block the wind it pierced every blanket and coat he owned. And too many times the gusts picked up his tent and sent it flying. Not a good situation for a man with rheumatism and arthritis in his hands.


The night of the first snow Tully made his way to the Bale and warmed his hands by the big pot-bellied stove. As he drank his one whiskey; the only one he could afford, he wondered how he was going to survive the oncoming frost. Other men even younger than himself had been known to freeze to death in these conditions. He didn’t stand a chance.


When Kay announced last call, Tully knew this meant another night in his flimsy tent. He trudged through the snow; now up to his ankles and blowing so hard it made it almost impossible to find his way. He cussed his luck out loud, but the howl of the piercing wind drowned out every word. Irish whiskey really did warm the old bones, but not tonight. He cussed again, this time under his breath for not finding enough gold to keep himself insulated against this bitter weather. But he knew, in his gut that he was getting close to a big strike, but today, as usual it eluded him.










When Tully woke up from a fitful sleep the snow and the wind had stopped, the sun was shining and he was able to build a small fire which warmed him up some. He certainly wasn’t in a sociable mood as he sipped his strong coffee but he couldn’t help overhear a man nearby tell his partner that he had spent the night in jail because he had gotten into a fight. He said “it wasn’t too bad, it was warm, the bed was comfortable and they gave me a breakfast of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, biscuits and the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.”  His friend said “Damn, maybe I’ll break a law tonight.” They both laughed as they walked toward their claim. That was enough for Tully. He knew what he had to do. He would get himself arrested and break enough laws so they’d have to put him away for at least a month. Maybe more if he got creative.


All day long Tully made his plans. He didn’t pan for gold because he wouldn’t need any. He was able to get a few hours’ sleep so he would be in fine fettle tonight. At nine o’clock he made his way through the snow to the Bale of Hay Saloon and ordered his first drink. He swallowed it in one gulp and demanded another. Kay hesitated and asked Tully if he had the dust. He crossed his fingers behind his back and replied “Why of course my dear. I struck a small but significant vein today and I intend to celebrate.” Kay reluctantly poured the drink and Tully quickly grabbed the bottle and said “I’ll just keep this. Don’t worry, there’s a big tip in it for you.” Tully finished the bottle in record time and asked for another. Kay was apprehensive but it was so busy she gave Tully a second bottle and went about dealing with cold, lonely miners with money to burn.


Tully’s excitement grew as he drank and listened to the familiar din. The hum of voices, the laughter of the girls, the old piano missing three or four important keys, the occasional shout of anger after a lost hand of poker and the clink of glasses. Stage one was complete.

The second bottle had done its job and he was ready for stage two of his plan. He surveyed the room and picked out a friend of his named Pete who was equally drunk and started an argument. It didn’t matter what he said or who did what next but soon the two old men were punching blindly, hardly landing a blow, but it was enough to get them thrown out. Kay grabbed Tully as he was pushed toward the door and demanded payment for his two bottles of her best. “Six dollars” she yelled over the din “and that big tip you promised.” Tully managed to pull himself up to his full five foot eight height and through slurred tones said, “My dear K-K-Kay, I fear I have told you a wee lie, you have unfortunately found me bereft of funds. I cannot pay you.” Then he pulled free and ran out and around to the back of the saloon.


Kay summoned the Sheriff to report the crime and Pete also insisted on pressing charges for the “terrible” beating he had received. Meanwhile Tully ran to the store room where he had spent so many nights, picked up a nearby snow covered rock and smashed its small window. With Kay, the Sheriff and Pete in hot pursuit Tully ran around the saloon again. Standing near the Bale was a wooden trash barrel; Tully hesitated for only a moment before he threw a lit match into the bin. It blazed up immediately and he hoped someone would put it out before it set the building ablaze. And, thankfully from his hiding place across the street he watched as several men ran out and doused the fire.


Relieved that his prank had caused no real damage, Tully took off his trousers and ran out into the middle of the street. He yelled and waved and shook his flannel covered posterior at the crowd while doing his version of a hoochy-koochy dance he had once seen in St. Louis. The sheriff managed to grab him and as Tully’s last criminal act of the night, he socked the Sheriff smack on the jaw.


The next thing he remembered was waking up in the morning with a pounding head. The sheriff heard him stirring and said “well you sure had a big night.” Tully rubbed his bloodshot eyes and asked “did I? I don’t remember much.” “Well let me remind you” and the Sheriff proceeded to read Tully a list of his crimes: “Not paying for goods and services provided, inciting violence, fighting, damaging property, public drunkenness, public indecency, striking an officer of the law, lewd behavior and the worst hoochy-kooch dance I’ve ever seen.” Tully quickly jumped in with “and don’t forget the arson.” The sheriff gave him a suspicious look as Tully added, “I mean I vaguely recall something about a fire.” The sheriff sighed deeply, grabbed his pen and added arson to his list. “Well you’ve got me sheriff. I’ll serve my time.  If I were you, I’d lock me up and throw away the key. Now, what’s for breakfast?” The sheriff shook his head and looked away so Tully wouldn’t see his smile and asked “What would you like?”  It was the most satisfying meal Tully had ever had. After breakfast he fell asleep next to a blazing stove in a soft bed and dreamed of gold nuggets as big as biscuits flying out of a river of coffee right into his pan and Kay and Gay doing a much better hoochy-koochy dance.


The circuit judge wouldn’t be making it to Virginia City until the spring thaw so it was in the sheriff’s power to act as temporary judge. So he sentenced Tully to two months in jail. Two months was good but not good enough so Tully argued “But your honor sir, I sure broke a lot of laws, I intend to pay for my crimes. I deserve at least…..” this was the beginning of December so he counted on his fingers to figure out how long he thought this winter was going to last and finally said….”four months.” The sheriff pondered and said “no Tully, you made a nuisance of yourself alright but there was no real lasting damage done. Two months should teach you a lesson.”  “But don’t forget, I hit you; that should be worth at least another month.” The sheriff rubbed his jaw and said, “That’s right, and it still hurts. Well for striking a sheriff and a judge for that matter, we’ll split the difference, three months.” Before he could stop himself Tully yelled “Perfect.” The sheriff gave him a sly look as Tully recovered quickly saying, “Your judgement is perfect. The Governor should be glad he has such a good, intelligent, law abiding citizen such as yourself protecting the fine folks of Virginia City from crazed, drunken felons like me.” “Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll take a little nap and when I wake up I believe it will be just about time for lunch.”








Tully passed early December in comfort and warmth. He spent his time reading the Montana Post and whittling small animals. He even whittled himself a pipe which he took to smoking as he worked. By now he had quite a collection of his handiwork lining the small shelf on the cell wall. The sheriff had brought in a few fragrant pine boughs and some holly with bright red berries to decorate the cell in honor of the season. On this particular day of December 24th Tully was wearing a pair of new, red long johns given to him by the ladies temperance league after subjecting him to a lecture on the evils of alcohol. He listened politely and swore he would never drink again. He would have sworn anything for a new pair of drawers since he had gained a bit of weight from all the good food he’d been getting and his old ones didn’t fit over his belly anymore. This didn’t bother him; he had no reason to fuss about his appearance now. No more trips to the gulch or the Bale for quite a while so he even stopped shaving. His white hair and beard had grown quite long.


After lunch as Tully was putting the finishing touches on a small horse with a delicate flying mane, his concentration was broken by two young boys peeking through his snow frosted window. They both had a look of horror on their faces and he could see that there was a frantic conversation going on between them, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Soon they disappeared from view and within a minute the office door opened very slowly as the same two boys peered around it. Seeing that the sheriff was out they shyly tiptoed in keeping their wide eyes un-blinkingly on Tully. They were dressed in ragged clothes and thin coats, hardly enough to keep out the Christmas Eve chill. They clung together more for moral support than warmth, when finally the smallest boy, somewhere around six, nervously moved and stood behind the older boy. Tully assumed they were brothers since they looked so much alike. The older boy might have been ten or even twelve; it was hard to tell with the thin scarves wrapped around their heads. Tully put down his horse and pipe and rose to greet them. He must have towered over them because they took a step backward as he stepped up to the bars, but they never took their eyes off of him. “To what do I owe this honor?” Tully asked with a chuckle. He never received visitors so this break in his daily routine was a very welcome surprise.  He waited as he watched them take in the entire scene. The warm, glowing fire in the stove, his fur trimmed coat thrown over his chair, his black boots in the corner, the toys on the shelf, the smoldering pipe and the lingering scent of the fresh, hot apple pie he had, had for lunch and finally his red union suit and long white beard.


The older boy cleared his throat and in a voice Tully could barely hear said, “excuse me sir, it’s Christmas Eve.” “I know that” Tully replied in a laughing; one might even say jolly voice. The boys looked at each other and smiled and for the first time the younger boy crept out from behind his brother and the two of them went right up to the bars and took Tully’s hands in theirs. The older boy said “my name is Wesley Buchanan and this is my brother Edgar. But you probably know us as Wes and Eddie.” Tully looked puzzled since he had never seen these boys before today. Wes looked around the room and found the cell keys hanging behind the sheriff’s desk. He grabbed them and quickly unlocked Tully’s door. “Hurry up and get dressed. There isn’t much time before Christmas Day and you must have so much left to do.” Tully didn’t move as he tried to understand what was happening. Wes became more insistent urging Tully to hurry and leave. He said “the sheriff is a bad man. He wants to ruin Christmas. What could you have done to get locked up? You have to go now. All the children are counting on you!”



Tully began to understand. He slowly looked around the cell and took in his own appearance. Then it was clear to him why these young, hopeful boys thought the sheriff had arrested and jailed Santa Claus. To them with their active imaginations, nothing could be worse.


Tully didn’t want to shatter their illusions but he had to tell them the truth. He said “look boys, I wish I could help but I’m not Santa Claus. Little Eddie finally spoke, “But that’s what I wanted for Christmas” pointing to the almost finished horse with the flying mane. How could you know if you aren’t Santa?” Tully was at a loss for a reply, so he sat in his chair and pulled the boys toward him and as gently as he could said, “Boys, I’m only a prospector who got himself into a bunch of trouble and got put in jail because that’s what happens to people who break the law.” Then he told them “It’s not the sheriff’s fault, he’s a good man who was only doing his job. I’m sorry I’m not Santa but I’m sure everything will look better in the morning.” It took a moment for the boys to understand as Eddie slowly moved to stand behind Wes once more.  Tully stood and walked the boys out of his cell and closed the door. “Now you boys better skedaddle right quick cause the sheriff won’t appreciate finding you here. You best get on home.” He could see tears in Eddie’s eyes as they moved toward the office door but they stopped and seemed to be having another deep conversation. Wes then pulled something from his pocket and walked back toward Tully. He said “maybe you had to tell us you’re not really Santa because you have to keep it a secret, but we still believe in you.” He handed Tully a dirty, creased envelope and ran quickly out of the jail pulling poor little Eddie behind him.













From his cell window Tully watched Wes and Eddie walk toward home. He thought he’d never seen anyone look so forlorn. He glanced at the envelope in his hand and moved closer to his bedside lamp. It had the address of a small farm he knew of about a mile out of town and it was addressed simply to “North Poll, Santa Claws.” No stamp. Tully felt as if he was intruding on a private childhood rite of passage, but since the boys left the letter in his care he slowly opened it. The writing was messy, punctuation almost non-existent and many words were misspelled. It was obvious it had been written by a child with very little education. But the message was clear.


It said:


“Dear Santa, 


How are you we are fine. This year me and my brother don’t want no toys. We just want one thing. Please help save our farm before it’s taken away and our family has no place to live. Pa says we had a bad crop and our money is gone and he don’t think we’ll make it till spring. I told him, not to worry cause it’ll all work out fine, Santa will fix everything. And we know you will.  We love you, Wes and Eddie Buchanan.”


Buchanan was misspelled.


Tully sat quietly for a very long time, never letting go of the boys’ letter. He thought back to his own Christmases and the excitement of the coming season, the warm hearth, family, good food and the toys. No child should have to take on the worries of an adult. Would they get any toys? Was there enough money for one more Christmas feast? He thought of the Buchanan farm and recalled the leaning barn, the house with missing roof tiles and the thin line of smoke coming from the crumbling chimney. He had met the boy’s father once working a claim; he saw the look of disappointment on Mr. Buchanan’s face each time his pan came up empty. Often he worked until dark and walked home with his head bowed low. Tully assumed it was from the cold but now he realized it was because, once again he had been unable to provide for his family.


One might feel sorry for Tully being in jail, but he was comfortable, well fed, and had some new clothes. The roof was sound which kept out the snow, the bed was soft and cozy and the stove continually burned the stacks of wood provided by the sheriff. Even though he was in jail he had it better than that poor family. But what could he do, he wasn’t Santa Claus, he had no gift to give and even if he did, he was behind bars. He was no help at all. He stood and paced the small cell, and then deep in thought he leaned his head against the bars. The cell door slowly swung open and Tully was staring at freedom. The boys had forgotten to re-lock the door.


Tully sat in his chair and pondered the situation. He hadn’t done anything good in years. He thought only of his own comforts; like where his next bottle or meal was coming from. Look what he had done just to get arrested. He caused pain to people who had been kind to him. But what could he do to help these boys who still believed that miracles could come true at Christmas? He absently picked up the unfinished horse and said out loud “all it takes is money.” As he carved the last intricate details an idea formed in his head. This was Christmas Eve; a big night of celebration in Virginia City so he knew the sheriff would be out most of the night. He jumped up and said “it just might work.”












“Well it’s worth a try” he said. He waited until dark, quickly dressed and slipped out of his cell. He grabbed his poke and one of the office lanterns and made his way up to his claim. There were plenty of pans and shovels lying around; as he knew there would be. The work was hard with so little light and he had to use his shovel to break through the ice that had formed over Alder creek. He dug and panned for hours, and each time he felt like giving up he reached into his coat pocket and held the Buchanan boys’ letter for a few minutes, remembering how important his task was. This always seemed to renew his energy and he would dig again, with the feeling only a man can feel trying to do some good in the world without any recognition or reward.


Then he found it. What he knew was there all this time. As he made his way to the Buchanan farm a comforting warmth surrounded his heart. This was a new feeling and Tully loved it. When he reached his destination just before light, the farm was dark and quiet. The only way he knew there were still people inside was the thin trail of smoke rising from that crumbling chimney. The front door had no lock so he quietly pushed it open and tiptoed in. He closed it quickly but that did little to keep out the wind. He found himself in a large, cold room with two doors leading from it. Perhaps a bedroom for the parents and one for the boys. This must have once been a fine house and he hoped it could be again. Hopefully his gift would help.


Tully thought “Maybe the boys were right; anything is possible no matter your age. Santa Claus can be anyone at all, for love a kind heart and a desire to give is something we never outgrow.”




Then Tully suddenly became aware of a soft glow in the east, the prelude to a dazzling dawn and minutes before the boys woke filled with hope, their personal Santa had vanished. But he had left behind his pouch filled with gold and a small wooden horse with a flying mane.







Tully raced into town to get back to his cell and he beat the Christmas sunrise by a hair but stopped in his tracks when he saw the sheriff sitting with his feet on the desk twirling the cell keys around his finger. Tully offered a weak “Merry Christmas.” The sheriff stood and escorted him to his cell, then made a very big production of putting the keys in his desk drawer and locking it. Tully slept off and on throughout Christmas day and the sheriff never said a word.


The morning of the 26th the sheriff finally spoke to Tully “I saw Mr. Buchanan this morning” and he told me someone had come into his house on Christmas Eve and left a pouch filled with gold.”  Tully asked, “I wonder who could have done that?” “Give it up Tully” the sheriff replied, “when you came in yesterday morning your hands were filthy, your clothes were wet and you were holding the lantern that used to sit on this table and Mr. Buchanan showed me the poke he had found in his house with the initials M. F. T. written on it. He didn’t know anyone with those initials but I do, Michael Francis Tulliver.” The sheriff paused as if choosing his next words carefully. “You did a good thing Tully. It looks like the Buchanan’s will be able to stay. So I will change your sentence. I simply shouldn't continue to hold a man who would risk so much to help save a family based solely on a letter written by two little boys.” “How do you know about that?” Tully asked, “Mr. Buchanan told me the boys made a visit to Santa Claus the other day Tully, or should I say Kris?”

With a deep, sad sigh Tully slowly turned and looked at his festively decorated cell and stood for a moment warming his hands for the last time by the small stove. He put on his coat and boots, sighed again and said “alright, I’m ready.”


The sheriff said, “Not so fast, there are still these new charges to face.” Tully looked confused as the sheriff began to read.  “Attempted escape, theft; my lantern, and breaking and entering. So as temporary territorial judge it is once again my duty to pass sentence.”


Tully fell asleep that night with a full belly and a big smile on his face because based on his current crime spree; the sheriff had sentenced him to sixty days more.





Submitted: September 12, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Susan O'Connell. All rights reserved.

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