Pine Nuts: Christmas on the Lode
This is the hardiest lot the world has ever seen. They are the whole-hearted few that see winter though up on the Comstock Lode. They are squirrels that wear dusters. They make their money in the summer, and then squirrel it away to see them through a cold Comstock winter.
Consequently, when Christmas Day rolls around, these robust souls are in possession of noble imaginations when it comes to extending Yule Tidings.
Which brings us to Hart Nathan Cook of Virginia City, also known as “Cappy,” a handyman who can size up any job, give a reasonable estimate, then retreat to the library to find out how on earth to tackle that task.
Cappy wears a tin cup on his belt, a tradition for handymen on the Lode, and so he is not the first to earn the title, “Tin Cup.” The tin cup is for coffee in the morning, and once the noon siren sends its sonorous wailing sailing across the tailing, something other than coffee goes into that tin cup, though only Cappy and his maker can comment on the contents.
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For life’s loners Christmas can be a disheartening time, a painfully dispiriting time up on the Lode, where the Washoe Zephyr comes whistling through chinks in the timber, causing cabins to creak and cry.
But Cappy is one of those hearty spirits who thrives on adversity and laughs at poverty in all weathers. He loves Christmas for the sheer challenge of it. You see, Cappy singles out one individual whose lot he figures is hard as a 3-pound drilling hammer, then goes about ciphering a way to brighten that person’s Christmas Day.
This year Cappy picked Isaiah William Snuggle, known to a few as, “I. Will Snuggle,” whose job it is to replace the candles deep down in the Chollar Mine, though few have ever witnessed Isaiah carrying out his mission. Cappy does not know Isaiah, though he sometimes sees him in the library with his nose between the covers of a book, and occasionally, while Cappy is working late on locomotive engine #18 of the V&T, he catches sight of Isaiah entering the Chollar mine with an armful of candles.
On Christmas Eve, Cappy takes a pull from his tin cup and pulls a book down off the shelf. He looks at it long and hard, turning it over in his hands. “Roughing It”: a first edition, the only first edition he has ever owned, signed by the author, Mark Twain.
Cappy wraps the book in a page of the Comstock Chronicle, tucks it under his arm, and walks to the Chollar Mine, where he lights a candle and makes his way down into the bowels of the earth. At the end of the drift he lays the book beneath a candle anchored in the granite wall, lights that candle with his own candle, and goes home.
On Monday after Christmas, Isaiah William Snuggle walks into the Virginia City Library to show the librarian his new acquisition. She suspects Isaiah’s book might be a first edition, and consults her “Guide to Identify Points of Issue” to confirm her suspicion.
Pushing her glasses up off her nose, she announces, “Isaiah, this is a first edition signed by Mark Twain, it’s worth more than your truck.”
“Worth more than my truck?” “Much more than your truck.”
“Well, to me it’s worth more than my house — so I’m keepin’ it.”
“Isaiah, how wonderful, was this a gift of Christmas?”
“Found it under a lit candle down in the Chollar Mine.”
“Who knows … Billy Chollar … Santa maybe.”
Christmas Day, as the noon siren sends its sonorous wailing sailing across the tailing, Cappy Cook smiles, pours his coffee out onto the ground, and refills his cup with contents that remain a secret between himself and his maker. (The man can put away more brandy eggnog than the Duchess of Devonshire.)
Merry Christmas from the squirrels that wear dusters up on the Lode.
Learn more about McAvoy Layne at http://www.ghostoftwain.com
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