Tomorrow, Santa Will Come
2007 by Judith Nakken
They'd call it child abuse today, he mused, dandling Keeto on his knee. Libby Anna, nearly five, knelt on the carpet between his feet.
"You're gettin' too big for Grandpa to lug around, little girl," he told her when they begged for Indian stories. "Sit there and I'll think of a Santa Claus story for you." Now he was doing just that, thinking.
Nope, it'd be child abuse even to tell it. Imagine, Johnny and Lawrence, they were just kids themselves. About twenty-two, twenty-three. Nope, can't tell these little ones that story!
He quickly improvised a holiday tale about himself, a little half-breed Indian boy on the snow-swept Montana plain near the end of the Great Depression. Manufactured ribbons and magic wings adorned Fanny, his old horse, and his tale had her aiding Santa when the reindeer got stuck - honest to goodness, kiddies! - in the ten-foot drift on the roof of the cabin that was home to him, his mom and dad and baby sisters.
He finished the story with a flourish. "When I woke up, I got the only thing I asked for, a Mickey Mouse watch! A fine present for a little Indian kid whose folks were poor. So I guess Santa was grateful that Fanny helped him out."
"What's 'poor,' Grampa?" asked Keeto, cuddling his pudgy neck into the old man's face. The piney odor of his daughter's enormous Christmas tree did not completely dispel the nostalgic fragrance of clean, warm baby. Too soon replaced by grubby little boy, he supposed.
"You know, Brother!" Libby Anna leaped up, arms akimbo. "The kids that don't have toys. We give them to the Marines and they give them to the poor kids." She shook her ancient head at the ignorance of little brothers and said, "Is that all, Grampa? You takin' your nap now?"
Daughter bustled in the kitchen. It was her day off and she wanted to make all the breads and cookies and puddings her mother had created, hoping to cook him a happy Christmas. He tried to tell her, a working girl, not to do all this, but she couldn't hear him. She works herself mean, and everyone suffers.
He limped to the basement guest room. Keeto tagged behind, heavy-lidded. Daughter called after them. "Can he take his nap with you, Daddy?" They cuddled under the blue jacquard bedspread, a wizened brown man and small, shiny boy, soon asleep.
It was so cold, even under the covers of his bed in the corner of the big room. Papa Johnny had stuffed newspaper in the cracks, but the snow was as high as the cabin's three windows. You could feel its icy strength through the wall boards.
He didn't want to be in bed yet. It had been dark for hours, since Uncle Lawrence and Nante Elizabeth came in the sleigh. Last Christmas Eve, when he was only five, Santa didn’t come until after the grownups were ready to go to bed. Tonight, he had already peed in the pot twice, he was so excited. It took so long, then so long again. But, tonight was finally the night. Santa would come.
They were hogging all the warm from the wood stove, and only one lamp flickered. The four adults sat around the heat, laughing and drinking pop and whiskey.
"Yeah, if I'da got a job in town like you girls' dad wanted me to, I'da been out of work in this dern depression! Yep, ranch work will keep us in a roof and food until Old Roosevelt starts his job in March! He'll turn it around, wait and see."
Uncle Lawrence talked a lot, laughed and joked even more. The little brown boy, big-eyed and silent, adored him across the room. He sneaked up beside Uncle now, squirming in the crack between him and Mama to toast first one side, then the other, making himself as small as possible. He inhaled deeply; yeast bread was raising on the chiffonier where Mama kept linens and RFD mail and diapers and secrets. He had been warned away from its vicinity in no uncertain terms.
Mama was nursing Baby Sister. The infant smacked and cooed and smacked again. Mama fed me like that too, she told me so. He wanted the baby to be brown like him, when Mama and Papa Johnny brought her home from Grandma's. He cried when he lay his arm alongside hers in the cradle Johnny had carved from the lightning-struck cottonwood. His didn't look so little any more, but he was still the only brown one in the whole family. He had sneaked into Mama's pretty powder box and puffed the sweet-smelling white stuff onto his face and arms. Papa Johnny licked him for it. Mama cried.
He was warm and began to nod, slipping forward along Uncle Lawrence's left leg. "Little guy needs to go to bed and wait for Santa," Uncle said. "Here, I'll take him, Johnny. You go get the wood and see to the horses." Uncle smelled of chew and whiskey and long johns, and he didn't want to leave the man's strong arms. He held as tight as he could until Uncle rolled him loose and under the quilts in one motion.
"Santa's about due, little fella," Uncle announced.
Mama was buttoning up her waist, putting Baby Sister in the cradle. Then her and Nante Elizabeth and Uncle Lawrence were standing by his bed. He tried so hard to keep his eyes open. Mama's voice was high, funny sounding. "I am certain I hear Santa Claus out there!" He jerked awake.
He heard something. Sleigh bells.
There they were again, closer. Was that someone on the roof? He was supposed to be asleep if it was. Then Nante was saying, "Look, look, at the window!"
Sleigh bells jangled once more in the silent night. White eyebrows, white beard, rosy cheeks – Santa was at the window! Oh, oh, there were noises on the roof! He scrunched down into his pillow tick.
Uncle Lawrence was so loud. The boy heard him knock over the taking-off-boots stool to grab the shotgun beside the door. Papa Johnny kept it there in case a meal of sage hen wandered by. He opened his eyes in time to see the beloved Uncle snap it shut and charge, bareheaded, into the white Montana night.
Bang. Bang. Two shots exploded.
He froze under his quilts. He had to pee again. Lifetimes passed before a solemn new Uncle Lawrence returned to the waiting cabin, slammed down the shotgun, spoke to the two women at the stove and the boy who cowered in the bed. "I got him," he announced proudly. "I got him."
"Santa, Santa," the old man stirred in his cold sleep and clutched the spread to his shoulders. He moaned aloud as the movement sent sharp pain to his hip. "Oh, Santa!"
Keeto awakened, knuckled his eyes and started to slide off the bed. His grandfather cried again. "Santa?"
"What'sa matter, Grampa? Don't weary, Grampa. Santa
will come." The boy could hear his mother's voice upstairs, screaming at
Sissy. He patted the brown face beside him and lay down again. Santa would
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