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2speckledblue
12-19-2007, 01:47 PM
This is a historical fiction story set in the 1890s that I wrote for Christmas, using a speckled cattle dog as one of the characters. It's long but I hope entertaining. Please excuse any mistakes with the German dialogue. It's been quite a while since I studied German in high school.



ST SIRIUS


Scratch. Scratch. Scratchscratchscratchstratchscratchscratch. J. Belknap Smith burrowed deeper in bed under the two quilts with his winter coat thrown on top for good measure. Although he had moved his bed closer to the pot belly stove, he failed to stave off the nighttime cold in the drug store back room he used as living quarters. Belknap, Knap to his few friends, had moved west from Haverhill, Massachusetts, for adventure as most young men were prone to do. He quickly learned no thrilling dime novels would ever be written about a druggist. So far, he hadn’t had to defend himself with guns a blazing from any wild outlaws trying to rob him of ointment or Dr. Gude’s elixir.

He flipped off the layers over his head momentarily to call out, “Who’s there?” The scratching continued, more frantic than before. He eyed the distance from the bed to the door. Crossing a glacier seemed more appealing. His body would instantly freeze with only his long johns for protection without the bed covers. Get a grip, Knap. That’s impossible; it’s not that cold in this room. “Who’s there?” he yelled. His breath misted out a foot from his mouth from the force of the increased volume. No answer, but the scratching paused a few seconds before resuming again.
With an exasperated groan, Belknap sat up and wrapped his coat around him. He fumbled with the matches and lit the lamp on the third try with numb, stiff fingers. He crossed the frigid room and brought the lamp up to the window but didn’t have a good vantage point to cast the light outside. He opened the door a crack, straining to see but attempting to prevent the even chillier night air from getting in. A furry snout pushed hard through the opening, banging the door into his forehead. As his hand went up to caress his injury, the dog pushed the rest of the way inside and sat a few feet away.

“Out! Get out!” The dog didn’t budge. It was unlike any he’d seen before. The sheen on its intermingled gray, black and white coat glowed a faint blue. The dog had a blotch of gleaming whiteness between the ears with an equally resplendent white tip on its wagging tail. “Out, I said!” The dog lay down, resting its head on the front paws and looking up with mournful eyes. “Oh, suit yourself, then.”

He hustled back to bed, blowing out the lamp and huddling under the covers which had lost any bit of warmth they formerly had. The dog jumped up on the end of the bed, turning in a circle before contentedly settling down. He thought about protesting or shoving it off but the dog’s body actually seemed to be warming his feet which felt encased in blocks of ice. I wonder if it’s a male or female was his last waking thought.



********************


Belknap felt eyes upon him…criticizing, impatient eyes. Slowly, he peered out from under the covers. The dog hadn’t been a dream. It whined and looked at the door. When he didn’t move, the dog dropped to the floor and rolled over, accenting the trick with a bark. “Okay, girl, I guess you deserve to be let out.” She wagged her tail in response and bolted for the door as soon as his feet hit the floor. He opened the door and she bounded outside. He stuffed a couple of logs into the stove, fanning the coals to start a flame. He went about his usual morning routine expecting a scratch at the door any minute. He surprised himself by being disappointed when the dog didn’t return.

Ready to brave the cold, he stepped out to go to the hotel for breakfast. The dog reappeared. She barked and ran down the street, and stopped to bark again. When he didn’t follow, she came back and nudged him with her nose several times. “What’s wrong?” She raced down the street, spun and lowered her front legs with her wagging posterior in the air, barking urgently. He preferred to get a cup of hot coffee into him before trudging through the snow after the dog but his curiosity couldn’t wait. Every time he caught up to her, she charged ahead again. Soon, they were at the edge of town. “I know you’re trying to tell me something, girl, but this is as far as I go before breakfast. He eyed the ominous nimbostratus clouds. The sky didn’t hold a hint of blue; it was white as snow. “Besides, Marshal Holgate says a blizzard is due to hit, has a feeling in his bones. Not that I put any store in an old man’s aches and pains but I don’t want to take a chance of being frozen to death in a snow drift. Last night was cold enough.” He headed to the hotel restaurant, ignoring the dog’s barking frenzy. Finally, she followed him and lay down out of the wind against the building as he went inside.



********************


“Ya know, Knap, whoever taught you to be a druggist should have also taught you common sense because you are severely lacking some. The amount of snow on the ground already has brought travel to a standstill and more’s comin’,” Marshal Max Holgate, scruffily attired and a wee bit overweight, sat contentedly at his desk. His office was a warm oasis. Although he was old enough to be Belknap’s father, the two men had formed a friendship over many late evening chess games.

“The dog had to come from somewhere. I haven’t seen her around town before. Her owner must be stranded and possibly freezing to death as we speak.”

“So you want to end up freezing to death along with him?”

“I’ll be on a horse.”

“Riding a horse in deep snow is tricky; you aren’t so steady for normal riding.”

“It’s hard to get a lot of practice for riding growing up in a big city.” Belknap stated in self defense.

The marshal ignored him, pressing on, “And, on top of that, it’s easy to get lost because landmarks are hidden by snow and no visibility in a blizzard.”

“The dog will guide me. You can supply the rest of the Daniel Boone wisdom I need.”

“I coulda sworn I mentioned blizzard, Knap…and good ole Dan’l recommends staying at home.”

The dog finished munching on the pieces of toast Belknap brought her, leftover from his breakfast and what he had scrounged from a few other plates. She trotted over and poked Holgate with a cold, wet nose. She got an ear rub which she enjoyed for a few minutes before she grabbed his sleeve and pulled.

“See what I mean, Max. Sirius has been trying to get me to follow her.”

“Serious? What kind of name is that for a dog?”

“Not serious, S…i…r…i…u…s. I named her for Sirius, the Dog Star. Her coat seems to shine bluish, reminds me of the cold glow of a star.”

“Well, it’s Christmas Eve. Sit and enjoy a little eggnog with me.”

“Eggnog in the morning!”

“Well, eggs are for breakfast whether you eat ‘em or drink ‘em. Besides this isn’t your granny’s eggnog. This has a little kick.”

“Christmas Eve is all the more reason to find a stranded traveler. Nobody should be alone and cold for the holiday. I’m going with or without you.” Belknap rewrapped his scarf to protect his neck and buttoned the top coat button. When the marshal gave no indication of joining him, he whistled to the dog and left.

Max sighed and raised his mug in a toast. “Merry Christmas.”



********************


By late morning, Belknap had gathered provisions for his rescue operation and packed them on a separate horse. He pulled on the cinch on his mount to tighten it for the umpteenth time. When he tried to get on, the saddle kept slipping even though he thought he had it snug on the horse. The dog patiently waited, no longer barking and attempting to entice him to follow her. I shouldn’t have told the stable hand he could go on home…that I can manage just fine.

A blast of frigid air hit him as the stable door opened and Marshal Holgate came in, saddle bags slung over his shoulder. “I got to thinkin’ if Miss Lizzie finds out I let you go off by yourself and possibly be late to her Christmas dinner tomorrow, well…there’d be heck to pay.”

“She wouldn’t mind for a good cause.”

“I still think this is a wild goose chase.” He took the cinch from Belknap, pulled upwards while simultaneously giving the horse a sharp crack in the ribs with his elbow. The horse grunted and exhaled. “He’s puffing out his belly and holding his breath so you can’t get it tight. Doesn’t want to go outside and can’t say that I blame him. Snow’s falling heavier and the wind’s starting to pick up.” Max moved on to his horse and began saddling him.

“You know, Knap, guessing about a dog’s behavior just doesn’t seem much like you. No science involved like in mixing drugs that you go on and on about.” He brought the horse out of the stall and mounted. The dog ran and bounced off the door several times. She barked shrilly.

“Actually a scientist, Ivan Pavlov, has been conducting experiments using dogs,” Belknap eagerly offered. He spent his spare time reading whatever scientific material he could get his hands on. He jumped at a chance to share a juicy tidbit. “Pavlov intended to study the gastric function by analyzing the chemistry of canine saliva. However, he discovered a psychic secretion which was much more interesting.” Belknap opened the door and led his horse out, closing it after the marshal passed through. “I haven’t heard anymore on the outcome of his work but it’s quite fascinating.” The horse put its ears back in protest but made no trouble when he mounted.

“Dog drool is fascinating? Sorry I said anything.” Max’s words were swept away by the wind blowing snow directly into his face. Both men adjusted their scarves so only their eyes showed as they hunched over and followed Sirius out of town.



********************


The drifts in the pass were deep as the snow piled up trapped by the surrounding mountains. The flakes were blowing horizontally and they could only see a few feet ahead. Without Sirius guiding them, they would have been lost and their bodies not found until spring. Max put a hand on Belknap’s shoulder and pointed to a rock outcropping blocking the wind. They had dismounted long ago to keep warmer by moving with the added effect of enabling the horses to proceed easier. They struggled against the blizzard until the outcropping offered some respite. Sirius, even with her endless energy, was content to have a short rest.

Belknap began circling his outstretched arms rapidly like a human windmill. Max watched him until he could stand it no more. “Okay, I’ll bite, why are you doing that?”

“I’m theorizing that blood warmed by exercise has collected in my larger muscles. By using centrifugal force, I’m forcing it from my arms into my freezing hands to thaw them.”

“Well, you look like a darned fool. Don’t waste your strength.”

“Then, I’ll be a fool with warm hands.” A strong wind gust blew a load of collected snow from on top of the outcropping on their heads. Sirius dodged out of the way but began to whine. She barked sharply a couple of times. “I think that’s our sign to move on.”

“A half hour more and then we’re turning back. Otherwise, we can’t make it back to town before dark. It’s rough enough going now. I’m not getting caught out here in the dark.”

“Go on, girl.” Beknap led his horse from the sheltered area and gasped as the brunt of the frigid wind almost took his breath away. The dog jumped though the snow mounds, glancing back only to ensure the men were still following.



********************


Max kept his head tucked to protect his face but felt he was getting frostbitten anyway. He only looked up to check his distance trailing behind Belknap’s horse. In his mind, he grumbled about dumb Dora ideas and his own stupidity in going along. Just ten more minutes and we’re turning around! He almost fell down when he ran into the horse’s butt. The horse looked back as if to say, “Watch where you’re going, bub, or I’ll give you a kick in the ribs like the jab you so rudely gave me earlier.”

“Marshal, over there.” Belknap pointed ahead. An outline of a house was vaguely visible through the blowing snow. The structure seemed misshapen. The dog circled back, barking repeatedly to accentuate her urgency. “Come on!”

As they struggled nearer, they could see portions of the house were missing and on one side, the roof had collapsed. A few vertical boards not buried in snow were blackened. “That house burned. It’s abandoned.” Max grabbed the reins of Belknap’s horse. “We’ve got to go back now.”

The dog bypassed the house ruins and disappeared behind them. Her barking was faint; the sound muffled in the blizzard. “I’m not giving up yet. Just a little further.” When Max refused to hand over his horse, he went on alone.

The marshal watched Belknap disappear into whiteness.



********************

Belknap struggled with the door of the flat topped building behind the decimated house. He kicked at the snow which had drifted knee high until he cleared an area to wrestle it open with less interference. Beyond what looked like stalls for livestock in the dim light inside, some embers feebly attempted to produce some heat. He could make out a heap of blankets next to the dying glow. He thought he heard a cat mewing. The building creaked as the cold storm raged outside. He walked further in and was surprised to see Sirius lying next to the blankets, poking her nose in them. “How did you get in here?” She wagged her tail. Probably snuck in with me unnoticed or maybe through a hole in the boards somewhere.

Quickly alternating front feet, Sirius pawed at the blankets, scooting backward to pull them apart. Belknap startled as the pile rose and an arm emerged. A white shawl covered head appeared next with long brown hair protruding in wisps below it, followed by the woman’s robin egg blue clothed shoulders. Her youthful face showed both bewilderment and apprehension.

“Gott sei Dank! Sie sind ein Engel. Aber wo ist mein Mann, Hans?” She spoke in a timid tone.

“Do you speak English?”

"Yes, I am alone long…with my kindlein, uh, baby…and forget to speak the English.” She cradled a bundled form and lifted the corner of the blanket to reveal a very newborn face. “My man, Hans, goes to get help. Our son, Christian, was borned last night.”

“Why in the world were you out in this weather in the first place?” He didn’t mean to be so accusing but he was weary and cold. Sirius nuzzled his hand.
The young woman’s tears trickled down her ruddy cheeks. “My time for borning was Januar, nicht Dezember. We go to my sister in Cold Spring. Sie help with baby. Ach, my man is lost in the schnee.”

The stable door banged open as Max quickly herded the horses inside. He shouldered it shut. “I really thought about going back without your goodie two shoes backside, Knap, but I am too nice a fellow to do that. Consider this your Christmas present.”

“I thought we agreed not to exchange gifts”

“Do you want me to leave?” Receiving no reply, Max tied the horses to the stall railings. When he finished, he noticed a horse in the opposite stall. His eyes were drawn to the woman when the baby began to cry. “Excuse me, ma’am, I didn’t know you were here.” He tipped his hat and a chunk of snow slid off. He beckoned to Belknap.

Even though the coals were barely lit, Belknap imagined that it was warmer in that part of the stables. He reluctantly left the woman. “The dog was right and I was right about the dog.”

“Don’t gloat. You made a lucky guess.”

“We’re not done yet. The woman’s husband is out there, somewhere. He went to get help. The baby came early. I’m sure they thought they could get to a relative in Cold Spring before the blizzard hit.”

“When did the husband leave?”

“I assume early this morning.”

“He’s probably frozen to death by now.”

Belknap lightly slapped his leg. Sirius trotted over. “Can you find him, girl? Can you do it?” She jumped against the door and barked.

“Aw, Knap, be sensible. The dog probably thinks you just asked if she wants to make some yellow snow outside.” He shook snow off from his duster. “Well, first things first, we’ve got to get some warmth in here, especially for the baby.”

“I’ll take the stall dividers apart. After that, there are always boards from the house.” Belknap dug around in his saddle bag and pulled out a hatchet.

The men set to work. When the fire was blazing brightly, the young woman began to cry quietly. “Hans hat kein Feuer für Wärme. Keine Nestwärme auch.” She rocked back and forth, trying to comfort herself as much as the baby.

“What did she say?” Max turned to Belknap.

“She’s talking in German. I’ve picked up a little from immigrants in the city. Something about fire and her husband not being warm, I think. She understands English, also.”

“Excuse me, ma’am but I’ll bet Mr. Smith forgot to introduce himself or ask you your name. I’m Max Holgate.”

“My name is Maria Dittweiler. My boy is Christian. We name him for the Christkind when he comes born next to Weihnacht, I mean, Christmas.”

Belknap smiled. “Your husband should be Joseph, not Hans.”

Maria kissed her child. “The Christmas story of the Bible is much happier than ours.” The tears came again.

“Uh, don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll be heading out to find your husband shortly. I just needed to unthaw a bit first.” Max gave Belknap a look that silenced any reproving remark he was about to make.

Soon the marshal felt he could delay no longer, suitably annoyed by Belknap’s would-you-hurry-up tapping foot. He took the Dittweiler’s fresher horse, and he and Sirius left the relative warmth of the stable.



********************


The wind driven snow had lessened but now the greatest hindrance was the fast approaching darkness. Max let Sirius go on ahead, watching her leapfrog through the deep snow until she was out of sight. Circling in place, he looked sheepishly for any onlookers and then windmilled his arms furiously. He thought he heard barking in the distance. He stopped flapping to listen, feeling tingling in his fingertips. By Jove, Belknap’s hand warming experiment just might be working. He definitely heard barking without the rustling of his duster to block the sound. He took off with a sudden burst of energy. The mare didn’t share his enthusiasm and he strained to pull her along.

Sirius was digging when he reached her. Nothing suggested the shape of a man beneath the cold whiteness to him. Intermittently, she stuck her nose in the snow, snorted and then continued her quest. Max went to his knees and started digging with his gloved hands. So much for warming up my fingers. He dreaded what he’d surely find, a frozen, stiff and very dead body. There are worse ways to die. I’ve heard that you get so cold, you just go to sleep and never wake up.

He made contact with something solid. Taking a deep breath, he scrapped the snow away from a larger area. A boot…still connected to a leg. A yard away, Sirius began to whine. She moved over and pawed at his arm. He shifted to look into the hole she’d made. He saw a woolen hat, a closed eye and white complexion matching the snow. “Hans Dittweiler, I presume,” he announced. Then, he took a closer look. A bit of mist came from the body’s nose. If only I’d been here sooner. He’s still warm.

Sirius licked Hans’ cheek. He moaned.

Jesus Christ! Max looked skyward. Uh, sorry…especially today. He felt along the man’s neck, located his shoulder and gave him a good shake. “Hans! Hans! Answer me!”

Hans moved slightly, and then rubbed his face with a snow coated hand. “Wo bin ich?”

“I don’t know what you said. Do you know English? Can you get up?”

The groggy, hypothermic man attempted to move. Max pulled him up to a sitting position. Sirius danced around both of them, nipping at an unseen companion with a funny growl.

“Maria?” Freed from the snow cocoon, Hans’ baby-face reflected his startling young age.

No wonder he didn’t have enough sense to not travel during a blizzard.

“She’s safe and the baby, too. I’ll take you to them.”

The marshal struggled to get Hans on the horse. The young man’s coordination was lacking. His stiff muscles wouldn’t cooperate and his addled mind was having difficulty determining balance. He kept slipping from one side or the other. Max finally moved beside the horse to better support him. The horse, only concerned with getting back to the stable, eagerly retraced the path carved through the drifts with Sirius leading the way.



********************


After the joyful reunion with his family, Hans could not control his violent shivering. Belknap melted snow for water and constantly forced the hot liquid down him. When his shaking greatly diminished, he was finally allowed to sleep. Through the night, Max and Belknap rotated fire tending duty. Sirius lay across Hans’ body, her nose on her paws, when the marshal was on duty. During Belknap’s turn, she divided her time being petted at his feet with protective cuddling close to Hans.

At dawn, they journeyed back to town under clear skies. The morning light glared off the snow, transforming the world into a sparkling wonderland. Everyone’s spirits were high. Sirius trotted along next to Belknap. When the terrain began to become familiar closer to town, she darted in front of him, causing him to stop abruptly. He hunkered down to give her a few loving thumps on her side. She put a paw on his knee and stretched up to lick his face. Then she bounded away like a deer, yipping and cavorting through pristine snow. She seemed to glow pure blue in contrast to the snow.

Miss Lizzie’s boarding house soon came into sight. As they approached, Max dug about in all his clothing layers for his pocket watch. He glanced at it. “We’ll stop at Lizzie’s to let her know we’ll be a few minutes late to dinner before we settle the Dittweilers at the hotel. Max handed his reins to Belknap and rapped on the door.

Lizzie, still clad in her apron, opened it. “I was so worried when I heard you rode off in the blizzard. Mr. Smith being a tenderfoot doesn’t know any better…but you!”

Max cocked his thumb over his shoulder. “I told him not to go but he didn’t listen.”

Two of the boarders came out on the porch, Pete Close and the school teacher, Miss Kate Porter. Having overheard the last of the conversation,

Pete remarked, “Miss Lizzie kept me from going after you both.”

“And he listened!” Lizzie scowled at Belknap.

“I was on a mission. This family was stranded in the cold,” Belknap said.

When Lizzie realized how young the couple was and heard the murmuring of the infant, she exclaimed, “Come inside. Right away.”

“We’re taking them to the hotel.”

“Nonsense. I have an extra bedroom here. Henry Lien decided to go to visit his mother in Denver after all. Besides there’s no room at the hotel. A lot of travelers were stranded by this storm. Come in, come in.”

When they were all inside and smelled the delicious dinner cooking, they knew there shouldn’t have been any other choice but to stay.

“An old cradle is up in the attic,” Lizzie said. “Would you mind fetching it, Miss Kate?” The school teacher nodded, delighted at the prospect of having a baby in the house at Christmas.

“I’ll help her bring it down and then tend to the horses,” Pete said.

********************

When the coats were hung and chairs gathered around the hearth, Lizzie asked, “How in the world did you know they were in trouble?”

“Their dog led me to them. She’s amazing,” Belknap said.

“Not ours. I sure thinking she is yours,” Hans answered.

“You know, I haven’t seen her since we reached the main road to town. I just thought she was scouting ahead,” Max briskly rubbed his hands to together holding them up to the warmth of the fire.

Belknap went outside and whistled. He called her name numerous times. He came back in looking quite dejected.

“Aw, Knap, she’ll turn up. She won’t pass on leftovers from a Christmas goose dinner,” Max said.

“I don’t think so. Sirius appeared from nowhere, did her duty and has returned to whence she came. I’ll really miss her.”

“Maybe she was an angel in disguise,” Maria quietly said.

In the magic of the day celebrating the birth of God’s son, for a moment, they all believed in angels.




THE END