Maybe it was some kind of Christmas spirit that trailed along after me from Vandalia when I joined up as a drummer with an Illinois regiment in ’63. Or maybe I was just following in Pa’s footsteps, when it come to playing Santa Claus. It was surely something other than good sense that prompted me to deliver a Christmas gift to a Reb camp, in the dead of winter. In secret, almost.
It all began in November, when our regiment got separated from the division during a retreat down in Tennessee, and the Rebs run us right up to the top of a mountain. Then this little bunch of graybacks just set down at the bottom, made theirselves at home, and dared us to come down.
With Christmas coming on, most of us was in a low mood, but the boys at the bottom of the hill was in no better shape than us. Our captain tried to keep spirits up by drilling us regular and ordering a little cannon noise every once in a while to demonstrate spirit, but there wasn’t no genuine attacks past the one that sent us up the mountain in the first place.
Other than that, our pickets reported that the Rebs was just as bored, cold and hungry as we was, and both sides was too low on ammunition to cause any real trouble. It was just a matter of seeing who could wait the longest, since the significant fighting had moved north, and we wasn’t neither side about to get fresh supplies any time soon.
On Christmas Eve, we sat melancholy ‘round the fire, shivering under our ponchos and trying to keep warm in what was supposed to be the balmy Tennessee weather our southern relatives always bragged about in their letters. Occasionally we stood as close to the fire as caution would allow, lifted up the poncho flaps and trapped some of the heat inside, which made us look like a bunch of crows flapping their wings. It was still a sight better than freezing our skinny selves on the cold straw ticks inside our tents. Some of the boys heated rocks and put them in spare socks to warm up the beds, but there was certain hazards if they got them too hot and blistered their feet or set the ticks on fire, as happened more than once.
Our company captain sat huddled with us ‘round the fire. He’d caught a mini ball in the leg during the skirmish that sent us up the hill and had considerable trouble sleeping. Every night he hauled his old dog Rex up to the fire with him and Rex just sat there as the official company dog, a good natured companion, but possibly the ugliest dog in the entire world.
Ol’ Rex wasn’t all beat up like Calamity, our dog at home, who was missing part of an ear and tail from a set-to with a raccoon. He was more the mixed breed type, who’d got the short end of all of his ancestors and looked like he’d been stomped on as a pup. The captain reached over and patted Rex’s head, like he could almost hear us evaluating the condition of his dog in our minds.
“All right, boys,” the captain said, “time to stop admirin’ Ol’ Rex here, and get some entertainment goin’.”
We perked up at these words, wondering what the captain had in mind.
“You gonna read to us?” one of the men asked. “Some more of that Dickens story with the ghosts, if you’re takin’ requests.” Others ‘round the fire voiced their strong agreement.
“Naw,” the captain answered. “There’s just a few pages of that left and I’m savin’ it for Christmas Day – for after the big feast with turkey and pie.”
A couple of the boys that still had a sense of humor gave the captain a few laughs. We’d been promised a ration of brandy for Christmas Eve, but no supplies had come through for nearly three weeks, and we’d be lucky to forage some hickory nuts to serve up with melted snow for our big holiday meal.
The captain reached over and rubbed Rex’s ears, and I swear that dog grinned at us. “You’re gonna entertain me tonight,” he said, “seein’ as how it’s Christmas Eve and none of you has seen fit to present me with any tokens of your esteem.”
This time we all laughed, as none of us had but the clothes on our back and the tools of our trade—guns for the men and drums and horns for those of us in the band.
“I’ve decided that I want stories from you boys. Let’s hear a little somethin’ ’bout your favorite Christmas.”
We all looked sideways at each other. We was already feeling pretty bad about not being at home for Christmas and talking about it was about the last thing any of us wanted to do.
“No story past when you was ten years old,” the captain added, which made things a little different, but not much. Then he turned and looked square at me. “Let’s start with the youngest,” which was me of course, having just turned thirteen in November, and shy by four years of all the other drummers in the company.
The captain nodded at me to commence, so I told how Pa owned a general store in Vandalia and we lived upstairs over the business. Me and my brothers slept on the third floor in the loft, so we was just a few feet away from all the action early Christmas morning. Every year we woke up to the sounds of Santa Claus stomping all over the roof and jingling reindeer harness, and all excited, we’d quick climb down from the loft to wake up our folks.
Pa was never there and Ma told us he’d gone to see what all the ruckus was about.
“That ain’t no ruckus, Ma,” we cried, “it’s Santy!” but Ma never looked any relieved, especially if it had snowed the night before, which made roof-stomping hazardous for even Santa.
It seemed like no time until Pa would shout up the stairs that it had indeed been Santa Claus up on the roof and he’d just seen the sled and reindeer flying off into the sky. We ran down the steps two at a time and when we got to the little storage room just off the main part of the store, there was a tree lighted up with candles and a present for each one of us.
As the years passed, we grew to be even greater believers in Santa Claus and felt sorry for our friends who said it was their folks who really played the part.
“Well, sure,” Pa said, when we told him this heresy, “Them poor parents has got to buy the presents because Santa can’t visit anybody’s house where there is non-believers!”
After hearing this news, my brothers and me made a pact never to speak in an unbelieving way about Santa Claus our whole entire lives.
The boys got a chuckle out of the story and one of them asked me if I still believed in Santa.
“Yep,” I said. “Us boys do it as a favor to our folks, ‘cause they couldn’t afford all them presents on their own.”
That remark got me a good ribbing, but it put the rest of the men in the mood to tell their own stories. All in all, the captain’s idea turned out to be a fine way to warm up the evening.
Finally, one of the boys said “Your turn, Cap’n.”
“You’re supposed to be entertainin’ me,” he grumbled, but we all insisted.
He sat thinking to hisself a minute, then turned to ugly ol’ Rex. “What do you think, boy?” he asked the dog, and Rex just wagged his ugly stump of a non-tail and drooled.
“Take a good look at this noble creature, boys,” he said. “You’ve got to look close at this critter to have full appreciation for the story.”
We all looked at the dog, and he looked back. He was certainly friendly enough, grinning and wagging when you talked to him, but he had a certain dilapidated look, like he was put together with the wrong parts. His legs was so short, somebody had to carry him on long marches. His ears was way too big for his flat little face, and his eyes bulged out like he was always surprised. He had a kind of mottled coat—not black, brown or tan, but a smudgy kind of mix that put you to mind of mud puddles at the end of winter.
“This here dog is truly one of a kind,” the captain said, and one of the men coughed to cover up a choking laugh.
“I see you agree,” the captain said, and the men kept their silence.
Then he grabbed the scruffy old dog and hugged him tight, which the dog seemed to enjoy. When he let him loose again, the captain put his face right into Rex’s and said, “Rex, you are one ugly little varmint,” and the dog grinned back at him like he’d said the most loving thing in the world.
“My brother George give me this dog for Christmas when I was ten years old,” the captain began. “He was just a pup, not more’n a month of Sundays. And I got to tell you boys, in all truth, he wasn’t no purtier then than he is right now. George rescued him out of a pond where somebody had throwed him in, fastened inside a canvas bag.”
This piece of news made us all take Rex more personal, as he’d nearly been cut off from living at all, and ugly didn’t count as a reason for getting drowned.
“George give him to me as a big surprise and I mean to tell you it was. I’d been wantin’ a dog since I seen the big black one the farmer down the road brought from his home in Germany. It was just a beauty, that dog, and knowed all kinds of tricks besides being good to take huntin’. Let’s just say that ol’ Rex here wasn’t what I had in mind, but George was so happy about his special surprise, I couldn’t hurt his feelins’ and it didn’t take long for me to begin to appreciate Rex’s finer, if not immediately noticeable, qualities.”
“The next year I give this old dog to my younger brother Matt for Christmas, ‘cause I didn’t have nothin’ else to give him, and Matt was poorly with the diphtheria. He was just four years old and loved ol’ Rex, followin’ him ‘round the yard wherever he wandered. I figured Rex could still really be my dog, but Matt could play with him more, assumin’ he survived the diphtheria, which wasn’t certain at the time.”
“What did George say when you done that?” someone asked.
The captain sat quiet for a minute, rubbing the dog’s ears. I noticed for the first time that Rex had pretty good looking ears for an otherwise unremarkable dog. They looked soft and silky.
“George was taken aback, and it was then I realized I’d give away his gift to me and didn’t know what to say. But Ma told him it was a noble thing—to give away somethin’ that you prized.
“Anyway,” the captain continued, “George really perked up at that and Matt was listenin’ too, ’cause the next Christmas, he give Rex back to me. He was only five then, but he’d tied one of Ma’s ribbons ‘round his neck and announced to me on Christmas morning: ‘I give you this dog, ’cause I prize him and it’s a noble thing.’ Ever since that time, we’ve given Rex back and forth at Christmas, each year dressin’ him up with fancier and fancier bows.”
We all give a round of applause to the captain, as the story ended up being a good one, and I don’t think I was the only one there taking a good look for the first time at ol’ Rex, who somehow seemed more appealing than when the story began. I realized with a start that Rex was older’n me, and considering how long dogs usually lived, in dog years he was older’n my grandpa.
The captain got up, stirred the fire and then set back down. Though we’d all continued talking and laughing among ourselves, he seemed to draw in and not have much more to say.
“You all right there, Cap’n?” one of the boys asked. We figured his leg might be giving him pain.
The captain looked down and shook his head. “This story ain’t got a happy ending, boys,” he said, and we all shushed up.
“I won’t get to be noble this Christmas.”
All of us understood, because nobody ‘round the fire would be exchanging gifts at home this Christmas.
“Maybe I ought to just chase him down the hill,” he said. “That’s where Matt’s celebratin’ Christmas this year.”
This was the first any of us knowed that our captain had a brother on the other side. “A picket brought word from Matt, shortly after that set-to three weeks ago,” he said. “Our pa disowned Matt when he went to fight for the Confederates.” Though he didn’t have to tell us any of this, he added, “Pa took him out of his will,” which we all knowed was a terrible disgrace for a man.
Nobody said anything about the captain’s brother, because the captain wasn’t the only person ‘round the fire in the same fix. But none of our Reb relatives was brothers and, to our knowledge, none of them was sitting right down the hill.
The mood among the men began to droop, so the bandmaster told us to get out the chapbooks and sing ourselves warm with a few Christmas songs. We knowed it wouldn’t be but a short while before we’d hear the Rebs come warbling back at us from down the hill, and we wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes they sang along with us, and other times we’d take turns.
Just to be ornery, we sang different versions of “Dixie,” using our own words, which was none too complimentary. And for every one of our verses, we got back versions of “Yankee Doodle” that was of an equally insulting nature.
Later on, the captain give everybody a ration of brandy and wished us all a merry Christmas. Then he excused hisself and retired to his tent. Some of the band decided to play for a bit, so I headed for my tent to get my drum. But as I passed the captain’s tent, something stirred inside my brain and I thought about his brother down in the other camp.
The captain had tied up Rex as usual outside his tent, and I bent down and rubbed his ears. They was as silky as they looked, and he grinned up at me, happy for the company. I stood and looked at him, a plan stirring itself up in my head. It was risky, and I knowed the captain wouldn’t approve, but what if it all got done before he found out?
I kept rubbing Rex’s ears while I untied the rope and led him away from the tent, thankful he wasn’t a barker. I’d heard the captain snoring a bit inside, and since he’d put down a double ration of whiskey because of his bad leg, he’d likely slumber on until dawn. The rest of the boys was feeling pretty happy from the brandy and would be unlikely to miss me ‘round the fire, considering the state most was in.
I skirted the campfire, pulling Rex quietly along with me, and made my way in the dark behind the tents. I knowed where both our pickets and the Reb guard generally stood watch and figured they wouldn’t be roaming too wide, since there hadn’t been any action in weeks. And from the sound of things earlier, they was pretty well wrapped up in celebrating, just like us.
There was a bit of moon to see my way through the trees, but I had to go slow and make as little noise as possible. It helped that the wind rustled the few leaves left on the trees for sound cover, as I crept down the hill. But it was colder’n blazes and it wasn’t long before my hands was nipped and my feet felt numb in my boots.
The incline was fairly steep, so I picked up Rex in one arm to keep him from slipping and immediately discovered why the captain kept him inside his tent some nights. That scruffy-looking dog was plumb toasty, so I tucked him away under my poncho and warmed up considerably.
As I picked my way toward the Reb camp, I was careful to stay a good distance from the singing, which I figured was somewhere about the middle of their camp. After about ten minutes of making my way down the hill, I could see the campfires burning not too far away. I planned to creep up close and tie Rex to a tree near a tent, hoping he would eventually draw some notice.
I tore off the back of the chapbook I still had in my pocket and used a bit piece of charred wood I carried around in my pocket to write “Pvt. Matthew Fleming” on it. Then I folded it up and put it under the collar on Rex’s neck. I didn’t have no fancy bow for his collar, as had been the custom for the captain and his brother, so I tore off a bit of ribboning from the side of my trousers and tied it next to the note.
It was good fortune that the tree line reached down almost into the Reb camp. Like us up the hill, they was probably cutting trees from the other side of camp for firewood, leaving the timber next to the hill for cover. There was only a short ways to go, so I went over the plan in my mind until I knowed I could do it almost without thinking. Rex whimpered at something in the dark and I hushed him. He looked at me with his big poppy eyes and seemed confused.
This close to the camp I was making too much noise, half-sliding down the hill, so I decided to turn around and crawl down backwards the rest of the way. I set Rex down on the ground, but as soon as I turned around and looked back up the hill, I saw the Reb picket, who’d probably followed us for some time. He had dead aim on me.
“Don’t make no move, boy,” he said, almost in a whisper, and was down to me in less time than I could draw a breath. “I know you’re smarter than to raise a ruckus, ‘cause the boys down the hill will come out shootin’. Keep that dog quiet, too. You don’t want no more trouble than you’re in.”
I shook my head, well aware that gunfire would draw attention on both sides and this would be an even bigger mistake than the one I’d already made. Rex snuffled his head between my legs, not sure what to make of things.
“I know you don’t want to start somethin,’ this bein’ Christmas Eve and all,” the picket said, and lowered his gun. “There’s just you and me here and maybe we can sort things out twixt the two of us.”
I looked down at the ground, my heart pounding so hard, I couldn’t talk.
“Gollee, boy!” he said, still in a whisper. “If you was plannin’ to sneak past lines, you ought not to stomp around like some bear in these woods. And a dog? You brung a dog along?”
Rex pulled his head out from between my legs and the picket exclaimed: “Lordy,”
Rex give him one of his grins, but I could scarce breathe and my brain wouldn’t work at all, so I just shook my head.
“Guess we’ll have to pay a little visit to the Colonel,” the picket said finally. “Though I doubt you’re what he was expectin’ for Christmas.”
He checked me for a pistol, then took Rex’s rope and led the two of us on down the mountain to the camp at the bottom. All the time we was picking our way through the trees, I tried to think of what to do or say, but my mind was about as froze as my hands and feet. Rex set to whimpering, not sure what to make of what happened. For a captain’s dog, he wasn’t no model of fierceness, but if he’d caused a stir, we might both have got shot, so it was just as well.
The picket pushed me into a tent that was lighted up bright with a lantern. A Reb colonel was sitting at a table drinking coffee and looked some surprised.
“I found Santy Claus out wanderin’ ’round in the woods, Colonel, and thought you might like to have a talk with him. Brought one of his reindeer along, too,” the picket said, as he tied Rex to the table leg.
“Merciful Lord!” the colonel said, getting a good look at Rex. Then he gathered hisself and looked me square in the eye.
“You tryin’ to slip past lines, boy?” he asked.
I shook my head, my tongue still froze solid.
“There’s no Federals anywhere around here. You’d do best to climb right back up that hill and commence singin’ insultin’ verses of ‘Dixie’ down at us.”
Something about that remark and the heat of the colonel’s lantern helped thaw out my brain.
“Not crossin’ lines, sir,” I mumbled at him.
“Then what you doin’, comin’ down that hill this time of night—spyin’?”
“No, sir,” I said. “I’m just a drummer.”
“You don’t think drummers can be spies?”
“I’m not a spy, sir. And I don’t want to cause no trouble for my company.”
I figured I had to tell the truth, because I’d never been good at lying. “I’m bringing this here dog as a Christmas present for Private Matthew Fleming.”
“Compliments of Captain Josiah Fleming, I presume?”
My jaw musta dropped, because the colonel said, “We knew each other…before. Did he send you with this dog, in the middle of the night?”
“No, sir!” In my foolish haste to help out the captain, I’d only made things worse. “It’s Captain Fleming’s dog, but he don’t know I took him or that I was trying to get him to Matt.”
“Didn’t think so,” the colonel said. “Not his style. But what’s so important that it’s got to be delivered across lines on Christmas Eve?”
I knowed it was now or never to get this thing done and since there didn’t seem to be much more to lose anyway, I told him the whole story, during which time, he kept looking down at Rex, who grinned back at him companionably.
“Dear Heaven,” the colonel said, as he looked at the dog. Then he stood up and pulled on his cape.
“Come on, son. It appears that this gift needs delivering right away.”
The colonel lifted the tent flap and led the way, with me and Rex following close behind. We passed the men’s tents and their rifles stacked in the clearing like bean poles. The Reb camp looked much the same as ours, with men huddled ‘round little fires, trying to keep warm. From the looks of them, they wasn’t any better provisioned than us up on the mountain. They’d obviously had some Christmas cheer, because they paid us no mind as they sang along loud and off-key with our carolers up the mountain.
We kept on going to a larger tent that was lit up inside. When the colonel pulled back the flap, I saw that it was an infirmary, with men bundled up on cots. Most of the men was asleep, but a few was still awake and turned their faces toward us as we come in. Rex, who’d followed along peacefully for our whole journey, jerked the rope outta my hand and took off to one corner, where he proceeded to whine and carry on. We followed him over to a cot where a Reb lay, looking pretty much dead.
By this time Rex was jumping up and down, more animated than I’d ever seen him. The colonel steadied him with one hand, and then pulled the man’s hand out from under the blanket and held it in his.
“Still with us,” he said, and an orderly nodded his head, but didn’t look real hopeful.
Except for his beard, Matt looked enough like the captain that I would have knowed him anywhere. “What happened?” I asked.
“Typhoid,” the colonel answered. “He’s in a bad way.”
Rex whimpered and tried to crawl onto the cot with Matt. I grabbed at his collar, but the colonel motioned for me to leave him be. Rex burrowed hisself right under the covers with Matt, who didn’t stir the whole time. Then he poked his head back up and laid it next to Matt’s, breathing soft in his ear.
Matt stirred, and said something in his sleep, and Rex barked. The whole tent came alert at the sound, and some of the boys sat up on their cots to see what was going on.
“Go on, boy,” the colonel said, nodding to me, “I think you know what to do. It’s what you came for.”
It wasn’t the way I’d planned it, but it seemed right that I say something to Matt, though I doubted he’d hear anything I said.
I picked up Matt’s hand and laid it over Rex’s funny little head, right on one of his velvety ears. I noticed with a start that the plumb ugly dog had gone and got hisself almost beautiful as the night progressed.
I knowed then that I’d have to leave Rex with Matt, even though the captain would likely never see him again. I could only hope that if he was standing there instead of me, he would have done the same thing.
Matt hadn’t showed any sign of knowing what was going on, in spite of Rex licking at his face and chewing away at his fingers. I leaned down and whispered in his ear. “I’m deliverin’ the noble gift, Matt,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
We stood next to Matt’s cot long enough to see him move his hand a little, as if to pet Rex, and Rex rewarded him with another face licking. Finally the colonel turned away and I followed him out of the tent and back through the clearing, where the Reb boys was still singing lively ‘round the fires.
When we got back to the tent, the colonel put his hand on my shoulder. “You’ve done a good night’s work, Santy Claus. Now it’s time to head back on north.”
He summoned an aide and give him orders to take me back to where I was found by the picket. “I’d like to send my best to your captain, son,” he said, “since we knew each other in better times. But this isn’t exactly an official visit and nobody ever sees Santy Claus, so you don’t have to mention it.”
I crawled back up the mountain without Rex, cold to the bone, missing the warm dog under my poncho. I made my way to the fire, where the boys was still holding forth, this time bragging about what they’d be doing next Christmas, once they got off this dad-blamed mountain and whupped the Rebs back into the Union. I stood close as I could to the fire and flapped my poncho up and down to thaw out.
The bandmaster yelled over to me, asking where I’d been. “We need a little drum-tappin’ over here to cheer things up,” he said.
The captain limped up behind me and pulled me away from the fire.
“Where have you been?” he asked, and it was clear he’d been worried.
When I told him the whole story, he kept shaking his head and giving me all kind of grief about sneaking away.
“You coulda been killed, boy! What were you thinkin’?”
I didn’t say anything back to him, because I knowed he had to be feeling bad about Matt, and then losing Rex, too. But when he was through yelling at me for what I done, he finally said that getting Rex back to Matt was the best Christmas present he’d ever had.
A week later, on New Year’s Day, the pickets come back to camp, carrying old Rex, who looked woeful beyond description. The captain took the dog from the men and went back to his tent, where he stayed the rest of the day. All we heard from the tent was a mournful whimpering, and we knowed that Rex was telling the captain the rest of the whole sad story.
A heart-warming, relatable historical adventure with clever turns.
—Holly Black, 2010 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge