Away, In a Manger

2018 Longmire Christmas Story

 by Craig Johnson

Static. “They stole the baby Jesus again.”

            It was after midnight, and I’d just started backing out my truck when the dreaded message floated from my Motorola two-way like the ghost of Christmas past. I stopped and sat there hoping I hadn’t heard what I was sure I’d had. To confirm it, I glanced at Dog, who was studying me, having not only heard the words but the tone.

            Static. “Unit One, this is Unit Three. Do you copy?”

            I reached down and plucking the mic from my dash, held it to my mouth. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”

            Static. “No, Boss, I’m not.”

            With the usual perversity of the Wyoming weather, Christmas Eve arrived with the National Weather Service having issued a Winter Storm Warning with a prediction of fourteen inches of snow by morning. Both interstate highways had been closed, so we’d issued a bulletin saying only travel of an emergency nature would be permitted in the county after 9PM. I’d sent what was left of the staff home, and only Santiago Saizarbitoria and myself were on patrol. I’d intended to relieve him and send him home too when the radio call had come in. 

             Pulling my unit into gear, I drove the three blocks to St. Mathias on the snow-covered, muffled roads. There was a larger, more modern church with an event center where the majority of the local Catholics took services, but the older, mostly Basque congregation still frequented the tiny, stone building by Clear Creek. I navigated through the snow to the old rectory and chapel and glanced up at the naked cottonwoods that were breaking up the heavily clouded sky like a monochromatic, stained-glass window, grained by the steadily falling flakes. 

            Father Thallon was standing a little way off from my deputy with Mr. Krauss, the church keeper, a crusty old handyman whose wife Carole fed and looked after the two priests, the afore-mentioned Father Thallon and the all-but-retired Father Baroja, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

            Saizarbitoria stood on the freshly shoveled but rapidly filling sidewalk in front of the elaborate nativity scene that dominated the front of the chapel, his hands on his hips, steam seemingly emitting from his ears. The Basquo stood still as he studied the scene of the crime, a case he had decided three years ago to take to heart. 

            The first year that Sancho had been in my employ someone had absconded with the baby Jesus from the original nativity scene that had been the property of the smaller Catholic church for decades. Hand carved by old world artisans—the same men who had built the church itself—I’d always thought it not the most flattering depiction of the Son of God, in that it appeared particularly cross-eyed. I’d just hired Sancho, and he’d taken on the task of trying to recover this original baby Jesus that had been an icon to the faithful, but even after exhaustive efforts, the Messiah had remained missing.

            Father Thallon, however, had accepted the loss with grace and bought an improved, blonder version of Baby Jesus in fiberglass, which the brethren had begrudgingly accepted. I’d thought it an improvement over the stigmatized one, but it really didn’t matter since the replacement was stolen the next year. Santiago had again taken the theft personally and vowed to apprehend the serial statue thieves but had once more come up empty-handed.

            St. Mathias had dutifully purchased yet another fiberglass statue, this time at the hefty price of three hundred and seventy-five dollars, but it appeared that once again the Lord and Savior had taken French leave. 

            Parking near the rectory, I got out and allowed Dog to follow as we approached the two men who stood by as the snow coated their heads and shoulders “Father, Mr. Krauss.”

            “Sheriff.” Krauss handed me a Styrofoam cup of steaming cider. “I knew you’d be coming and brought you some.”

            “Thank you.” I watched him return to the rectory where his wife stood at the door, sipped the spiced liquid, and nodded toward my deputy. “How’s he taking it?”

            “Not well.” Father Thallon shook his head. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

            I glanced at him. “I’m assuming you made precautions?”

            He nodded, his beard surrounding his cup like a furry wreath, the eyes behind the horn rim barely discernable in the fogged glass. “We chained him to an iron stake that was driven into the ground.”

            I nodded, glancing around. “Have you thought about a fence and a gate?”

            “I’m not putting the baby Jesus in prison—it’s bad enough I have to chain him up like a dog.” Feeling a little ashamed at the outburst, he reached down and petted the beast. “No offense.”

            I sipped my cider and thought about it. “It’s not just here, you know.”

            “Excuse me?”

            I gestured toward the empty manger. “People have been stealing the baby Jesus for decades—there was even an episode of Dragnet back in the fifties where the statue was stolen by a boy who had promised Jesus the first ride if he got the wagon he wanted for Christmas.” I sipped my cider. “The only episode re-made in color.”

            He shook his head. “You never cease to amaze me, Walter.”

            “Nothing but the facts, Father, nothing but the facts.” I shucked my Carhartt jacket up on my shoulders in an attempt to insulate my neck and sighed a deep breath of frozen vapor into the air. “I guess I better go over and access the damage to my staff’s pride.”

            Dog fell in behind me as I shuffled up behind the Basquo and sipped my drink, allowing the heat to waft over my face. “It was St. Francis of Assisi who came up with the idea back in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. He was trying to place the emphasis of Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than secular materialism. He staged the reenactment in a cave with real people and animals. It got a rave review from Pope Honorius III.”

            He glanced over his shoulder. 

            “I’m pretty sure that baby Jesus got taken home each night, seeing as how it was a real baby and all.” I stepped up beside him as Dog circled and turned to look at both of us, tongue lolling and tail wagging. “Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene, at which point they started using statues instead of live actors. Pretty soon the practice spread out beyond Catholicism to practically all of Christianity.”

            Lodging a hand on his Beretta semi-automatic, he turned and looked at Dog and me. “How about crucifixion, is that still a thing?”

            “Not so much.”

            He looked back at the nativity. “It’s gonna be.”

            I ventured a step closer. “Here, have some cider and calm down.”

            He hesitated but took the cup, sipped the hot drink, and then gestured toward the pageantry with it. He shook his head. “Three years running—.”

            I nodded but said nothing.

            “The Son of God.” He glanced back, peering at the empty manger. “It’s symbolic of something important, you know.”

            I studied him. “I never thought of you as being all that religious.”

            He shot a look at me. “I’ll have you know I’m religious as hell.”

            “Right.” I took a step closer and examined him, the dark eyes piercing the cold night as he stood there running scenarios through his head like an analog computer. I recognized the pattern because it was one of my own. It was odd seeing it in the Basquo though, as he rarely let his emotions run away with him. But it was like that sometimes, the case you couldn’t let go—I was just glad that this Christmas criminal act was relatively benign. “How ‘bout you go home, and I take this one this year?”

            He stood there, unmoving.

            “All right then.” Sighing, I turned and led the way toward the rectory porch. I patted my leg, and Dog trailed along at my side as Saizarbitoria begrudgingly abandoned his vigil and joined us. Father Thallon was waiting at the door, but I hesitated. “What about Dog?”

            “All creatures great and small are welcome in God’s house.”

            The porch door opened into the kitchen where wonderful smells emanated from Mrs. Krauss’ efforts. She busied herself around the place but paused to hand Dog a morsel of uncooked pastry dough, then took his big head in her wrinkled hands. “Hello you old oska you.”

            Father Baroja was seated at the kitchen table much like the last time I’d seen him a few years ago with his arms wrapped around his own steaming cider as if one of us might try and take it from him. The old Basque was sporting a red beret, coated with snow on one side, and what looked to be a wool shawl over his broad shoulders all an attempt to stay warm, giving us a disgruntled look as we trooped in along with the freezing, late night air.

            Crowding in beside the rock fireplace that had an ancient pot hanger suspending a heavy kettle over the flames, I flapped the snow from my hat into the fire and watched it sizzle, and then waved at the priest. “Father Baroja.”

            He ignored me as he always did, but I didn’t take it personally, knowing that he most likely confused me with Lucian Connally, my predecessor, who had had an altercation with his family generations ago.  

            “Kaixo aita.” The old priest immediately brightened as Saizarbitoria spoke. “Bero atatu?”

            Croaking out a response, he patted the bench seat beside him, and Sancho joined him at the table as I nodded for Father Thallon to join me in the chapel breezeway, which allowed the Basques to talk between themselves in their native tongue. 

            Entering through an alcove, we found ourselves at the base of a circular, stone stairwell where a stiff breeze caught the priest’s attention. “Oh no, I must’ve left the window open in our living quarters upstairs.” He turned to smile at me. “When Mrs. Krauss uses both the fireplace and oven, it becomes stifling, so I have to open a window or we asphyxiate.” He gestured upward. “I’ll need to close that. Do you mind?”

            “No, of course not.” I started to follow. “Can I have a look? I’ve never seen this part of the church.”

            “Come along, Sheriff, please.” Following his lead, Dog and I watched as he pointed out the workmanship of the masons. “I’ve always wondered–have you ever noticed that the stairwells in these old buildings always circle to the left?”

            “Yep.”

            He glanced back at me. “I assume you know the reason for that?”

            I thought to myself—medieval design. If you were defending the castle from the top down against intruders it made it easier to lead with your sword hand, which was generally your right. I shook my head. “Nope, can’t imagine why.”

            We made it to the second landing, and he carefully closed the window that had 

been ajar, a skiff of snow lying on the broad planks of the wooden floor. “I’ll need to sweep this up or Mrs. Krauss will have my head.”

            As he busied himself, I glanced out the window behind the rectory where what looked like the beginning of a snowman sat in the middle of the courtyard that led to an old dugout and then moved toward the two doors to my left, one closed and the other hanging open.

            “Father Baroja’s room—he’s getting quite forgetful and leaves the door ajar.”

            I glanced inside at the simple bed, a small desk and chair, and a primitive armoire. There was a crucifix on the wall along with a Basque flag and a few photographs, one of which was of a young, barrel-chested Father Baroja lifting a boulder the size of an ottoman. 

            Father Thallon joined me. “There is an old Basque tradition, the harri-jasotzaileak, or the lifting of stones, a tradition from when the farmers used to clear the fields—they carry stones as heavy as five hundred pounds. I guess the old guy was a champion, back in the day.”

            Leaning over, I studied the next photo where three heavily armed men, grinning sly smiles with their berets tipped at jaunty angles standing in a grove of slender trunked trees. “And this one?”

            “From the Spanish Civil War after he escaped and fought against the Nationalists.” He pointed to the individual in the middle. “That’s him, the one with the cigar in the corner of his mouth. He used to try and smoke them here in the rectory, but Mrs. Krauss put an end to that.”

            There was a sudden, crashing noise that was just short of deafening, which reverberated through the stones. I started, but Father Thallon only smiled as he stowed the broom and dustpan in a cupboard. “Mrs. Krauss.” He turned and yelled to be heard over the noise. “She always plays the pipe organ for Christmas Mass.” He leaned in to be heard. “In all honesty, she pounds it. The way the building is oriented, it’s almost deafening up here in the rectory where we have our bedrooms—like bombs going off.”

            As Dog and I followed down the steps, the volume receded. “So, she only plays it on Christmas Eve?”

            He nodded as we made the ground floor. “It hadn’t worked in ages, but we had it repaired three years ago—the bellows are old and we try not to over use it, but she enjoys it so much she must be giving it a fond farewell for the season.”

            I nodded, glancing up at the hand-hewed beams that constructed the Kingsbridge system that held up the shaker shingles and the beautiful, stained-glass windows that ran along both sides as we entered the chapel. 

            Mrs. Krauss was indeed pumping away at the old foot pedals and pounding out a heartfelt version of Away In A Manger as Father Thallon waved to get her attention and she stopped, closing the cover on the keys and looking repentant. “Sorry, Father, but I love the old organ.”

            He smiled. “I know you do Mrs. Krauss, but we’ll need to hear ourselves think if you don’t mind?”

            I watched as she patted the old wood gently and then climbed down, walking past us, apologizing the whole way before disappearing back toward the rectory.  Saizarbitoria had appeared and held the door open for her. He glanced around the chapel particularly at the cathedral windows that depicted oddities from Basque folklore. Sancho stopped in front of the one with fairies spinning around the head of what might’ve been a saint. “Do you suppose the workmen were playing a joke when they installed these?”

            Father Thallon shook his head. “No, they were donated by a church near Guernica that was destroyed during the war. The windows were removed in the thirties and stored, but the church was never rebuilt, so they were offered by a family member of a parishioner and shipped here.” Father Thallon nodded as he glanced at them. “They are . . . rather whimsical.” Cupping his hands together, he bowed briefly. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to discuss your findings.          

            Sancho looked up at me and glanced at his wristwatch as I climbed the few stairs and sat at the magnificent pipe organ, opening the cover and pumping the pedals before hitting a few notes near middle C, listening to the reverberation in the stone building. After a moment I stood, cracking my knuckles as Sancho winced. “What did the old priest say?”

            “Oh, we talked about the laminak and how they were always listening in on him and how they sometimes move his things.”

            “The laminak?”

            He gestured toward one of the glass panes. “You know, fairies.” 

            “Do you think they took baby Jesus?”

            “I don’t think so.” He stood in the front pew and stretched a boot out to rub Dog, who rolled over on his back. “He doesn’t trust the younger priest, Thallon, but then he doesn’t trust the Krauss’ either—thinks they’re Nazi sympathizers of all things.”

            “Does he trust anybody?”

            “Not much—he’s had a rough life. Before he came to the US, he was taken captive by the fascists and placed in a work camp where he built roads and walls for three years. When they bombed the place, the prisoners ran and hid under bridges, in basements. . .  I guess more than once he had to dig his way out.” I watched as he walked back to the window, the one with the giant stacking stones. “Do you remember the last time we were here? The story that Father Baroja told, the one about the Jentillak?”

            I covered the keys and climbed down, gesturing toward the window where he stood. “The giants?”

            “They lived alongside the Basque, but one day they saw a storm cloud to the east unlike anything they’d ever seen before, so the wisest of the giants marched their people off and moved the great stones that led to a land under the earth in the Arratzaran valley in Navarra.” He continued to study the stained glass. “The giants told the Basques that the time of the Jentellak was now over because Kixmi had been born.” He turned to look at me. “Jesus.”

            Father Thallon appeared in the vestibule and waved his arms to get our attention. “Walter, you better come have a look at this.”

            Trooping into the kitchen at the priest’s behest, I could see that Father Thallon had set up a laptop computer on the kitchen table beside a plate of cookies and was peering into the screen with Mr. Krauss looking over his shoulder.

            “It’s a game camera.” The handyman nodded. “I use this when I’m deer hunting in the fall and thought that if I set it up maybe we’d catch the thieves in the act.” The older man took a cookie from the plate. “I forgot that I’d put it up on one of the trees. I was so busy taking my other precautions . . .”

            “What other precautions?”

            “I filled it with concrete.”

            We all turned to look at him, but I was the first to speak. “You filled the Baby Jesus with concrete?”

            “Yes. I drilled a hole in it and filled it with Quick-Crete—two bags.”

            The Basquo pointed at the screen. “There’s a time signature down on the corner with a date, but these are from a month ago.”

            Krauss nodded. “That was when we put the nativity up.”

            Sancho leaned in further. “Why is this computer loading so slowly?”

            Father Thallon looked back. “I’m afraid it’s old and takes its time.”

            Figuring we had plenty, I thought about the weight of the concrete-filled Jesus and circled around to refill my cup with more cider. I looked out through the heavy, beveled glass at the mounting snow and thought about the lump I had seen in the courtyard behind the rectory. “Father, when were the other statues stolen?”

            He glanced up at me from above the screen. “On Christmas Eve, all of them.”

            I ruffled Dog’s ears as he sat beside me. “Yep, but what time?”

            He thought about it. “During Mass, after midnight.”

            “All three?”

            “Yes.”

            Considering that, I watched as Mrs. Krauss appeared in the doorway with a snow shovel, stamping her boots and shuddering from the cold as she closed the door behind her. “Bill, where did you put the wheelbarrow? I need it to clean out the snow blowing in the entryway.”

            Krauss looked up at his wife. “It’s right outside by the wall leading toward the chapel.”

            “No, it’s not.”

            “Carole, I put it there this afternoon.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand and then gestured toward the computer screen. “Can’t you see we’re in the middle of an investigation here?”

            I glanced around the room and moved toward Father Baroja, who was sitting on an old upholstered armchair by the window. Kneeling, I offered him another cup of cider and peered into the man’s rheumy eyes. He stared at me, not understanding why I was there, but took the cider and turned back to looking out at the falling snow. 

            The others were eyeing the two of us but quickly went back to the screen, Father Thallon pointing at it. “That’s tonight, and there’s somebody there in front of the camera.”

            Straightening, I turned toward them. “It’s not going to show anything.”

            Saizarbitoria glanced at me, annoyed. “What are you talking about, we’ve got the thief red handed, you can see the . . .” His eyes went back to the screen and then widened. “Did it just go dark, like somebody hung something over the camera?” They all looked at me as I sat the empty cup in the sink, zipped my jacket, and cranked down my hat. “C’mon.”

            Mrs. Krauss got out of the way, and Dog and I lumbered toward the door, the three men following, doing some lumbering of their own. Her eyes shone as she looked up at me. “Where are you going?”

            Pushing the latch down, I stepped out into the cold and pulled my Mag-Lite from my duty-belt. “To get your wheelbarrow.” The priest, the handyman, and my deputy brought up the rear as Dog and I walked through the stone archway and cut a path into the courtyard, Dog handling the snow much better than I. The mound was still there, and it was only as you got closer that you could see a wooden handle sticking out.  

            Reaching down, I pulled at the cart and listened to it scrape in the quiet of the silent night as I straightened it. After setting the wheelbarrow aright, I brushed some of the snow away and lifted the heavy baby Jesus that was lying on the ground back into the bucket.

Sancho stared at the Son of God and then back at me as Father Thallon joined us and Mr. Krauss took the handles of the wheelbarrow. “They must have hit a loose cobblestone or slipped in the snow, but where were they going with it?”

            Shining my flashlight beam over the snow, I could see the dugout with its thick wooden door that I’d noticed from the rectory window. “I assume that’s a root cellar?”

            Krauss looked past me. “Yes, but it’s partially collapsed. We haven’t used it in years.”

            Continuing on, I scuffed some of the snow away from the top of the three steps and attempted to shine my flashlight into the small windows but couldn’t see anything; then I carefully stepped down the three stairs and put my shoulder into the door, forcing it open. 

It was a small area with a dirt floor, and you could see where one wall had collapsed inward, dumping dirt and stones. Dusty cobwebs floated free like gossamer curtains in the flashlight’s white beam, and there were wooden shelves lining the walls with empty jars and splintered wooden boxes. There was a tattered tarp next to an old bentwood chair that sat with a dusty blanket carefully folded on the seat along with an ashtray and a half-smoked, still-smoldering cigar. 

            Following Dog, I stooped my head, took a step to the center of the small room, and pulled the twine connected to a single lightbulb, which, to my surprise, flicked on. 

            Sancho joined me in the dim light, which allowed Father Thallon and Mr. Krauss to enter also. “How did you know?”

            “When we arrived, I noticed that Father Baroja’s hat only had snow on one side, as if it had been hanging outside so he must’ve seen Mr. Krauss putting the camera up a month ago.” Lifting the ashtray and its contents, I put it on one of the shelves and sat on the narrow chair, the beam of my flashlight shining about as Dog nosed the tarp. 

            “And the wheelbarrow?”

            “Just lucky–I saw it out the window.” I glanced around at the snug spot, inhaling the faint smell of burnt tobacco. “There was the photo of the old priest lifting the stones in his youth, but the real key was the thundering racket of the old pipe organ and the fact that it was only being used for Christmas Mass since being repaired three years ago. I’m thinking the noise must’ve reminded Father Baroja of the bombings he endured in Guernica, so he would escape to this place—his own, private bomb shelter.” 

            Reaching down, I pulled the tarp away and picked up the oldest of the two remaining statues, the hand-carved one, and rested it in my lap. Looking into the wayward eyes, I couldn’t help but think that the craftmanship wasn’t so bad after all. 

Dog sat beside me, creating a somewhat unlikely pietà. “I guess the old guy wanted to make sure that the most important thing in the world would be safe.”

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