Christmas Eve, and Buck was dreaming. Turkey on the table, steam rising from the perfectly browned skin, surrounded by a bed of oyster dressing. A boat of gravy and a huge bowl of mashed potatoes within easy reach, along with the yeast rolls and a platter of sliced ham. His mouth watered as the odors of Yuletide feast filled the dining room, and the clatter of the oven door in the kitchen announced that the apple pie was being set to cool on the counter. His stomach rumbled. This was the Christmas Eve feast he wanted to provide, but times were hard and even wild game was proving difficult to come by.
Buck and his daughter had silently shared a joyless meal of greasy possum and a mess of bitter turnips. Virginia had not complained and even managed a theatrical grin of pleasure, but the truth was this holiday was merely an exercise in preventing starvation. The bank panic had done for Buck’s modest savings, and now only good fortune and whatever could be got with a bullet provided for his household. Still dreaming, he gnawed on a huge turkey leg and wondered why he couldn’t seem to get full. He burped. Possum. Strange aftertaste indeed.
He had just got up to go fetch the pie when he felt something shaking his leg. “Daddy.” No pie for now, he thought as he opened his eyes. Virginia stood by the foot of the bed, and she put her finger to her lip in a shooshing gesture. “I think it’s Santa.” The house was so cold he could see his daughter’s breath in white clouds as she spoke. Buck got out from under a mountain of blankets and hides, clad in red thermals. He thought it over. Santa. Well, the old Christmas elf did get around but as far as he knew the Ozarks were a little bit out of his way. Virginia was a good girl, but the nearest place of any size was Springfield and who could blame him for not hitting every spot in the boondocks?
“What makes you think it’s Santa, Ginny?” He contemplated a wall covered with rifles, pistols, knives, swords, bows, and nearly every other instrument of death and mayhem devised by man. Maybe Santa and maybe not, never hurts to be careful, he thought, and picked up a bolt action Henry from his dressing table. “I heard him coming down the chimney. Reckon he’s halfway down.” The chimney ran right through Virginia’s bedroom on its way down to the parlor on the ground floor of the house. Buck opened his sock drawer and pulled out a box of .22 cartridges. Ginny had insisted on not lighting the fire so as to not harm Santa, making the house both miserably cold and easy to infiltrate by all manner of critters. Buck was guessing there was a raccoon coming down the chimney. Buck sighed. Possum for Christmas Eve, and Raccoon for Christmas.
“Did you hear anything up on the roof? If we were getting a visit from Santa, he would have parked his sleigh on the roof. You’d hear the hooves of the reindeer stamping around up there. They would make a click-click-clicking sound.” Buck knew from experience. Santa had brought him his first pistol, and old single-shot cap and ball type when he was just four years old. He could still recall seeing the huge flakes of snow falling past his window and the way the wind rattled the glass in the pane. There had been a sound of jingling bells, and a thump on the roof followed by footsteps. He had done his best to pretend he was sleeping, but the sound of the reindeer on the roof had excited him too much. Santa was just putting the pistol, wrapped in a green and red bow, under the tree when he walked into the parlor. “Go back to bed like a good boy,” Santa had said with a smile, “and tomorrow you can learn to use this. Get good with it!” And then he put one finger to the side of his nose and ascended up the chimney like lightning going backwards.
“No, Daddy, I didn’t hear anything on the roof. I just got woke up by sounds coming from inside the chimney flue. But it’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve been good all year. Santa is bringing me the boots I asked for.” Buck felt his stomach drop. She needed them badly, and a more selfish child would have just expected to get them as a matter of course. She made do with her ragged shoes and didn’t mention it until Christmas got close. The year had been very lean in every way it could be, and as the year grew longer so did Buck’s shame. He couldn’t get his little girl the nice new dresses she should have had for school, he couldn’t buy her a nice new toy for her birthday or even a cake. He was lucky to put food on the table and there had been some times he skipped meals because there wasn’t enough for two. He had quietly put in a prayer to the Almighty God for a Christmas miracle, and given the lateness of the hour it looked like he’d been declined. He didn’t blame God, since Buck knew he was a sinner, but it grieved him that the Lord would ignore his baby girl.
“Let’s go see what we can see downstairs.” Buck lit a lantern and they stepped quietly out into the hallway and onto the stair. Buck moved as silently as a deer in the woods, his huge and muscular frame causing not so much as a creak on the stairs. Virginia tiptoed as silently as she could, making very little sound except the occasional giggle. Buck could hear something in the chimney, alright. A scratching sound like an ornery cat at the door and a sibilant, high pitched tittering.Buck stroked his beard and stared. Well, a raccoon was out of the question since he never knew of one to giggle.
“That ain’t no Santa and it ain’t no coon.” His brow furrowed with anger as the answer hit him.
“That’s a gol-durned Krampus.” There came a rattling sound and a thick chunk of carbon the size of a dinner plate landed in the gray ashen mass in the fireplace, sending up a cloud of dust. Something coughed in the chimney. A good chimney sweep couldn’t have knocked that mess out, and to look at the fireplace it looked like the flue was getting a good cleaning. Buck had wanted it done, since the house was old and a flue fire had weighed heavy on his mind, but even the small cost of a chimney sweep was a fortune on the his budget. Well, if nothing else good comes of the holiday, there’s that, Buck thought.
Buck was a patriotic man. He believed that America had been ordained by God to be the light of the Western World. He also believed that people from less fortunate countries had a right and duty to come to the promised land of the New World bringing all that was good with them. The downside was that they also brought the bad. The Irish brought whiskey and corned beef, but also their werewolves and banshees. The French brought fine wine and finer women, but also the bothersome Lutin. And the Germans had come with their bratwurst and beer, and Der Krampus had hitched along for the ride. Buck could picture them, hiding in steamer trunks and beer barrels, giggling and biding their time.
In the Old World, the beast was considered the evil companion of Santa, a dark and hungry devil come to eat the naughty children. In Buck’s opinion, that was prosecuting the victim. Judging from the noise in the chimney and amount of soot and carbon in his fireplace, this was a fairly large specimen. Probably a buck of the species. He knew that Krampus hibernated all but two days of the year, making hunting them in the wild difficult and not very profitable. Big bull Krampus, at least as strong as a man but much faster and tougher. Armed with large fangs, horns, and knife-like claws. The black fur of the beast was as coarse and bristly as that of a wild boar. He considered the Henry. Nope, the Henry wouldn’t do for that creature. More than likely the slugs would just bounce right off the thick, leathery hide.
. “What’s a Krampus, Daddy?” She was an exceptionally bright child and knew her father well. She could tell from his face that she had wandered into deep waters, and he was weighing what he could tell her. He sighed. “I ain’t gonna lie, honey. The Krampus is a bad one. They sleep the whole year away and they don’t get up until Christmas Eve, and they wake up hongry and mean. Then they look for a house that has children in it, and they come down the chimney. And if they can catch the kids, they haul them away and gobble them up.” The child looked up with a look of outrage and anger that he had never seen. “I guess he don’t know you kill monsters for a living.”
Buck just smiled. “That he does not.”
“You kilt the Little Rock werewolf.”
“And made moccasins out of his hide.” She smiled, and Buck could see her whole body relax. She had complete faith in her father, and he felt his heart swell with love and fierce pride.
“And you’re going to kill that thing in the chimney.”
Buck nodded and handed his daughter the Henry as the ruckus in the chimney grew louder. “Take the Henry back upstairs and fetch me the buffalo gun.” He walked over to the fireplace and pulled a gray ceramic jar off of the trembling mantle. He opened it up and pulled out a corncob pipe and began filling it with the last remnants of tobacco from the jar. He could not have a pipe often and his supply was low, but he felt that the circumstances merited breaking out the last. He cherished every bit of the ritual. The smell of the tobacco, the texture in his fingers as he filled the pipe and tamped it down, the resistance of the wooden safety match against the side of the box as it flared to life. He took the first puff of smoke and his nerves turned to steel. The mantle began to shake and little bits of mortar began to fall from the bricks as the monster neared the end of the flue, mad from hunger.
Thump, thump, thump down the stairs came Virginia, dragging a massive weapon that stood taller than she as the stock bumped against each stair. Buck took the weapon from her. “Good girl. Now go back to bed and get some sleep. I’ll take care of this.” She hugged her father as huge black fingers with ugly yellow claws as long as steak knives curled around the outside of the fireplace. The beast was getting ready to pull itself through, but it would be a struggle. Big Krampus, small flue. Lots of bother for it. “Night Daddy.” As she ran back up the stairs, Buck admired the rifle. The Massachusetts Arms buffalo rifle. Five feet long at the barrel, walnut stock, huge bore. Made to stop the largest bison dead at a full charge. He didn’t need it often, but having it around was surely a comfort. He pulled his favorite old rocking chair across the room and parked it against the wall across from the fireplace. Huge horns with razor sharp tips protruded downward, and the Krampus snarled and snapped as it fought to come out. Buck could hear the awful gurgling of the creature’s belly, starved for child flesh, and he felt his temper begin to get up. No need to get excited, Buck thought.
Buck sat down and took a pull off his pipe and the aromatic blue smoke swirled around his head, making a halo. There were folks that would pay cash money for a Krampus rack. The bristles made excellent scrub brushes. The hide he would keep, tan and turn into a nice pair of boots for his daughter. He drew the bolt back and slid an enormous cartridge home into the barrel. Bam! There might even be enough leather left over to make a pair of those kid gloves that were so fashionable in town. Buck was no Bible scholar, but he was sure that a wise man had wrote in there that life itself was mainly composed of the greasy possum of want and the bitter turnips of sorrow, and of that fact he was well satisfied. Still, Buck thought as he braced the back of his chair against the wall and leveled his rifle at this Christmas prayer answered, the Good Lord did provide.