Friday, April 01, 2005

Part One

A Bodie Christmas
Edwin T. Peterson
Edwina Peterson Cross

In 1859, in a cold, lonely space of the high desert country of California, Waterman S. Body discovered gold. Soon this little corner of the high desert was no longer deserted as more and more people rushed there to “see the Elephant.” Of course there was no elephant in the California high country, “see the Elephant” was what the miners called looking for gold, and because of gold, the town of Bodie was born. There was a story that the name of the town was changed from “Body” to “Bodie” by a sign painter who didn’t know how to read and write, but the truth was that the town’s folk changed the name themselves because they didn’t want people to think their town was named “Body” as in “a dead body,” though it seemed for awhile there were plenty of those to be found in Bodie anyway.

Bodie became a Boom Town, growing rapidly, filled with sudden riches. By 1879 there were 2,000 buildings lining the streets of Bodie and 10,000 people living there. Bodie had also become famous as the most Wicked Town in the West. It was known far and wide for it’s lawlessness, wild living and badmen. There were robberies, stage holdups, and killings every day. When someone was buried, the fire bell rang once for each year of that person’s life. It seemed as though the fire bell was ringing all the time.

There are many stories told about Bodie. Some are told about the mysterious, infamous “Badman from Bodie” but no one seems to know who he really was. There is another story of a young girl whose family was moving to this wild and wicked town; it is said she wrote in her diary: "Good-bye God, I'm going to Bodie." Soon everyone in the west knew the saying.

I am going to tell you another story about Bodie, a story that is a little West of the wild tales everyone knows of holdups and gunfights. This story tells not about the ledged of the town of Bodie, but about the people who lived there. It is wider than the wild tales, deeper than the legend, this is a story about miners who spent their days underground; and a particular kind of gold that they found together. It is a story that happens to be true.

It begins on December 23rd, two days before Christmas. It is a clear, cold day, but it is beginning to smell a little bit like snow, and snow would be just fine for Christmas day. There is a smile on the face of the handsome young miner who is riding through the mountains toward Bodie.

Ed Loose is not much older than twenty, but he has been on his own a long time, he is a quick and smart; he knows how to look out for himself and how to take care of business. He and his two older brothers William and Warren are mining a claim about two hours ride away from Bodie and they are doing well. Ed doesn’t mind the mining life, but now it is Christmas and he is heading to town to stay with his best friend Billy Metson and to celebrate. He hums pieces of old Christmas Carols as he rides. Ed is in a fine mood, after weeks in the mining camp, he is looking forward to the good food and drink that the season will bring. “And clean clothes,” thinks Ed to himself smiling, “and a hot bath!” It gets mighty dirty down in a mine and it’s cold in the high desert in December, just the thought of a hot bath and clean clothes is almost enough to sing about in and of itself! Ed laughs and decides that, actually, a hot bath does deserve a poem at least and he begins to think of rhymes as he rides.

On the outskirts of town, Ed bypasses some shanty sheds, working his way up a hill toward a small house set back against the hills. He’ll just save himself some time and pick up those clean clothes on his way to Billy Metson’s. The festive smile slowly fades from Ed’s face. He has taken his clothes to the laundry being run by Dan Davenport’s widow, to try and help her out. Dan was killed earlier in the year in a mining accident. Ed knows that the family came from the east and that they used every bit of their savings just to get to the California gold fields in the first place. Dan’s widow and her two small children couldn’t go back east if they wanted to. The laundry is hard, back breaking work and Dan’s wife has never been particularly strong, but she doesn’t have much of a choice. Ed bites his lip. “At least I’m bringing her some work,.” he thinks. Somehow, this doesn’t make him feel any better.

The little house is really only a cabin. It is built well, but it wasn’t made to be a laundry and it is crowded and cluttered. Mrs. Davenport seems embarrassed by this and she fusses about trying to tidy things up, but there is just no where to tidy them to. The two small children seem to be right in the way, they keep getting underneath her feet, but she is patient with them.
“I’m sorry the place is such a mess,” she says pushing a stray piece of hair back from her face with her wrist, “I can’t seem to ever get ahead of the work anymore.”
“It looks extremely tidy to me Mam,” Ed says solemnly, “I just came from a mining camp.”
She doesn’t laugh, but a small smile lifts the corners of her mouth for a moment.
‘Fair like she has forgotten how to laugh,’ thinks Ed to himself. ‘And it’s no wonder.’
He notices that she somehow looks smaller than she used to. She is pale and her eyes look red and tired.

“I’ll just get your things, Mr. Loose. They are all finished, here in the other room, but I’m afraid I still have to get them together. It will just take me a moment . . . if you don’t mind . . .”
“I don’t mind at all,” he says hurriedly, “I’ve done what I set out to do today. I was coming to Bodie and I’ve accomplished that.” The corners of her mouth lift briefly again, but the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. She disappears into the adjoining small room.

The little girl follows her mother, but the little boy, who is about five-years-old stays behind, shying regarding Ed from under a thick set of blonde bangs. Ed smiles at him.
“Hi there,” says Ed, trying to make his voice sound not as deep and round as it usually is.
“Ya . . . ya know what mister?” the boy blurts out.
“No,” says Ed, “but I bet you do.”
The little boy thinks about this for a moment and then bursts out laughing. It is such a sparkling sound that it makes Ed smile his Christmas smile all over again.
“So, I’ll tell you what!” the little boy says, grinning, “it’s almost Christmas! That’s what!”
“You are so right!” says Ed, “it is most definitely almost Christmas!”
“Ya wanna know what Santa Claus is going to bring me?” he asks. His eyes are blue and they are sparkling with secrets.
“I sure do,” Ed droops down on one knee so he is just about the same height as the small boy.
“Andrew!” says Mrs. Davenport suddenly, sharply, appearing at the door. “Stop bothering the gentleman.”
“Oh, he’s not bothering me Mam . . .”
She smiles tiredly at Ed and steers young Andrew into the other room where she is getting the laundry together.

Ed wanders around the tiny room. Looking at the window casings that look as though they leak, the cupboards that look ready to fall down. He tries not to listen, but there isn’t much he can do, the little cabin is so small he can hear every word that is being spoken in the other room.
“I wanted to tell the Gemplman about the wooden soldiers, Mama,” says Andrew, “you know the ones all painted bright, Daddy was gonna make ‘em for me . . .”
“I know Andy,” the woman’s voice sounds thick. “But he didn’t even get them whittled from the wood, and I . . . I just can’t do it, I, can’t work the knife . . .”
“No, Mama, it’s OK!” pipes in the little girl, “you don’t have to whittle wooden soldiers or make the new dress for my baby Abigail either, ‘cause Santa Claus will bring them, just like he always does.”
“And oranges!” says Andy excitedly, “I don’t remember the last time I even saw an orange! But Santa always brings ‘em and apples and stripped sugar candy.”
“And new mittens! And a thick hat with strings that will keep my ears warm!”
“Children . . .” the woman’s voice breaks and she has to clear her throat. “We are a long way away from our house in Vermont . . . I don’t think Santa Claus will . . will know where to come way out here.”
“Of course he will Mama! Julia ‘n me’s been so good this year, haven’t we Julia? And Santa Claus always knows where good children are, Daddy said so.”
Ed is close enough that he can hear the woman’s fast breaths as if she is trying to get her breath back after running. Or trying not to cry. “That may be so in the rest of the world,” she says shortly, “but . . . this is not the rest of the world. You know there just aren’t . . . there aren’t many children out here and Santa, well he can’t remember everything. Santa, he . . . he probably doesn’t remember that Bodie is even here.”
“Oh Mama!” says Julia in a shocked tone, “That just can’t be so! How could Santa forget a whole town?”
“Because he . . . did,” she replies sharply . Ed can tell she can’t think of anything else to say. He hears her take several gulping breaths. “Now you listen to me and you listen good!” her voice is raised suddenly, it sounds distraught and a little bit frantic, “I don’t want to hear anymore about it now! No more talk about Christmas! We left Christmas behind in Vermont . . . we buried Christmas with your father . . . and Santa Claus . . . Santa has forgotten Bodie, who could blame him! and he doesn’t remember there are any children here at all. Do you hear me? Santa has forgotten Bodie.” This is followed by nothing but shocked silence.

Ed walks as far away as he can get in the small house and looks out the front window, still when she brings him his shirts carefully folded, her face is burning and she is biting her lower lip to keep from crying. She doesn’t look much older than a child herself at this moment - except for the deep dark circles underneath her eyes.

“I must apologize Mr. Loose,” she says simply, and with a lot of dignity. “This place being as small as it is, that you had to hear all of that. I just had to take care of it and not keep putting it off and letting them go on. It . . . had to be done and I . . . I just had to do it right then. I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, Mam, . . .” Ed Loose is well read, extremely intelligent and very seldom at a loss for words, but at this moment he can’t think of anything to say that won’t make things worse. “It’s no problem, Mam,” he mutters, feeling like kicking himself for being unable to offer anything else.

When he pays her for his laundry he tells her that he hasn’t got anything smaller than a twenty dollar gold piece; she’ll just have to keep the extra. Her lips press together. “I understand what you are trying to do Mr. Loose and I thank you, but I don’t take charity.”
“It isn’t charity,” he argues, “I just don’t have any smaller coins, it would be doing me a favor.”
“No, I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I haven’t the money to make change. If you haven’t anything smaller, you’ll just have to pay me next time.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that Mam . . .”
“You can do it just as easily as you can overpay me for work I haven’t done. Again, I thank you for your thoughts, but I don’t take charity.”
Ed just nods and suddenly finds some smaller coins in the depth of his pocket.
Andrew has come out from the other room and is peering at Ed around his mother’s skirts. He is rubbing at his reddened eyes with his fist.
Ed says good bye to the widow and to the widow’s son and goes back out into the wind of December.

©Edwina Peterson Cross and Edwin T. Peterson


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