Next Christmas in Girouette… is a full-length novel for people of all ages—nine to ninety-nine—who want to share a heart-warming literary adventure at Christmastime.
Set on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, this is the story of a brother and sister—Autry and Oxana Quinn—who find themselves stranded in a Girouette, a virtual ghost town, from Thanksgiving through Christmas when their father is taken ill. Their grandfather, a Marine Captain long retired, plus an eccentric old café owner, a Blackfeet Indian horse trader who was once the town’s mayor, a couple who published the local newspaper and an ancient deaf-mute trapper are the only remaining inhabitants of Girouette. These self-styled “diehards” all seem to have one thing in common. Thanks to a mysterious event 60 years earlier, they still believe in Santa Claus.
Next Christmas in Girouette features something for everyone: carefree cowboys who race their horses over snow-covered country roads, a team of wolves trained by a mountain man to pull a sleigh, a stroll that nearly turns tragic on a treacherous buffalo jump, a serialized newspaper story titled “The Adventures of Rocky Mountain Santa,” a desperate attempt to escape from an abandoned copper mine, a night-time journey through the mountains on a frozen river and finally the miracle that delivers wayfaring strangers to Girouette during a white-out on Christmas Eve.
The book revels in the solitary beauty of winter in Big Sky Country, the enduring wisdom of the elderly citizens of Girouette, the excitement of frontier history coming to life, the inspiration of a family healing itself and the magic of an old-fashioned western Christmas. Read Next Christmas in Girouette with your family this year, and you’ll want to revisit it for years and years to come at holiday time.
Read an excerpt!
Autry and Oxana were tired but happy as they ran across the street through the falling snow to the Dispatch Building for what had become a routine visit with the deSpains.
Again, Mrs. deSpain opened the door for the kids before they had a chance to knock. “Come on up,” Joe said, “Edgar is eagerly awaiting your return.”
When the kids entered the deSpain’s parlor, they saw another big armchair had been placed in front of the fire with its back to them. As they approached Edgar deSpain, who was sitting where he had been the day before, a man arose from the other chair and turned to greet them. The children gasped. The man, who stood even taller than their grandfather, The Captain, was dark and brawny with long, thick, gray hair tied in a ponytail and a large scar on his cheek.
“Oxana, Autry… this is Ron Running Elk,” Edgar said.
The man stepped away from his chair and shook Autry’s hand very formally, then bowed to Oxana. He was like a king from a distant country and an earlier time.
Edgar sat back down and motioned for the kids to take the places they had occupied the day before. “I asked Ron to come over,” he said, “because he’s the same age as I am, he grew up in Girouette like Joe and I, and he remembers Rocky Mountain Santa as fondly as we do.”
“Ron served as mayor of Girouette a few years back,” Joe added. “He owns the general store the other side of the hotel. It’s closed now, but people used to come from miles around to shop at Running Elk’s Emporium. He sold everything under the sun. He still has quite a few things stored there, which he sells during our Hotel Halloween Days.”
Ron leaned forward in his chair. “I grew up on the res—that’s what we called the reservation—an’ we didn’ have a radio,” he said. “We didn’ even have ‘lectricity. But we did git the Dispatch ever night. My dad’d read the adventures of Rocky Mountain Santa ta me an’ my brothers jist before we went ta sleep.”
“I especially wanted Ron to be here today,” Edgar said, “because this adventure takes place on the Blackfeet reservation.”
Joe offered everyone fresh cowgirl cookies with red and green frosting.
Edgar adjusted his bifocals. “December 1, 1940. Rocky Mountain Santa and the Medicine Man.” Edgar sat back in his chair, glanced at Autry and Oxana, then proceeded. “From Santa’s Rocky Mountain Headquarters on Going-to-the Sun Road,East Glacier National Park,Montana, U.S.A…. Last night was a busy one here on the eastern porch of theRockies. As you kids know, Santa has been negotiating a new treaty with the Blackfeet tribe. He wants to make sure it’s all right to deliver presents to Blackfeet children on Christmas Eve, since many of the families there don’t believe in Santa Claus.”
“It’s true,” said Ron Running Elk settling back in his chair. “We didn’ believe in Santa Claus. We liked the part about the flyin’ reindeer an’ all ‘cus it sounded like a Blackfeet legend of some kind. But we celebrated an event some people call Winter Solstice now. We’d build fires an’ keep ‘em goin’ all night, even though wood wus scarce, then we’d sing an’ dance ‘til the sun come up. That wus usually two er three nights before Christmas Eve. Christmas wus an afterthought, if ya know what I mean. ‘Course, when people’d come around with presents from the missionary school, we wus happy ta have ‘em. We wus dirt poor, so a second-hand jacket or a pair of gloves looked purty good ta us kids.”
Edgar smiled and continued reading from the Dispatch. “Fortunately, Santa Claus is an honorary pipe holder in the Blackfeet tribe. He knows all the elders and he’s on good terms with the medicine man. At least, he thought he was on good terms with him. With less than three weeks to go before Christmas, Santa flew over to the reservation last night for a private powwow with the medicine man, whose name is Charley Horse. Now, Charley Horse still practices the old ways, which means he lives in a teepee. Santa was dreading his meeting with the medicine man, because he hates to sit on the ground. After an hour of sitting on the cold ground, it’s very hard for Santa to stand up again.
“For three hours, Santa sat there smoking the peace pipe with Charley Horse and listening to the medicine man go on and on about all the particulars concerning how the presents would be delivered to the children on the reservation. For instance, the presents were supposed to be handed in through open windows—not dragged down the chimneys—and placed in straw baskets, not gift-wrapped. That was fine with Santa, of course. Furthermore, none of the children would be expected to leave cookies for Santa. Now, this was the burr that got under Santa’s saddle. The Blackfeet children would leave mule’s ear biscuits for their benefactor the medicine man insisted, along with raw prairie dog livers.
“‘Hold on there, Charley Horse,’ Santa said. ‘The biscuits is all right, but I guess I’ll take a pass on them raw prairie dog livers.’
“‘I’m afraid I must insist on the raw prairie dog livers,’ said Charley Horse, offering the peace pipe to Santa again. ‘To the Blackfeet, they are a rare delicacy.’
“Talking about raw prairie dog livers was beginning to make Santa dizzy, as was sitting in Charley Horse’s teepee while it filled up with smoke from the medicine man’s powerful tobacco. ‘Look,’ said Santa, ‘the truth is I got me a tender stomach. There’s certain things I cain’t tolerate, an’ liver’s at the top of the list. I don’ even eat liver when Mrs. Claus fixes it—chicken liver that is—so I’m sure as shootin’ not gonna be able to eat….’ Santa couldn’t even bring himself to say ‘raw prairie dog liver’ for fear of losing his lunch in Charley Horse’s teepee.
“Charley Horse stood up suddenly, bending the feathers he wore on his head against the top of the teepee. ‘You have offended my people,’ said the medicine man scowling. ‘We believe the prairie dog to be sacred.’
“‘If that’s the case,’ said Santa wryly, ‘why d’ya wanna eat his dang liver?’
“‘Because, we are hungry,’ said Charley Horse.
“‘Well, I ain’ that hungry,’ said Santa defiantly.
“‘Then you’re not going to deliver presents to the Blackfeet children,’ said Charlie Horse imperiously. ‘Now, I will show you to the flap.’ He strode over to the flap of his teepee and dramatically threw it open for Santa.
“After much effort, Santa got himself into a standing position and limped out of the teepee. His back was aching from sitting on the ground, one of his legs had gone completely to sleep and his head was reeling from the tobacco smoke. ‘Looky here,’ said Santa, taking a deep breath of the cool night air, ‘why don’ we ponder all this an’ git back together after a day er two.’ ‘There’s nothing to ponder,’ said Black Owl. ‘There will be no jolly bearded Santa man visiting the Blackfeet reservation this year’.”
Oxana and Autry were not sure whether they should laugh or not. The story seemed to be disrespectful of the Blackfeet culture. Then Ron Running Elk burst out laughing.
“Jist fer the record,” said Ron mirthfully. “I never ate a prairie dog liver in my life an’ I hope I never havta!”
Edgar, who was a master of keeping a straight face, continued reading. “Although Santa wanted to be friends with Charley Horse, he could see that negotiations with the medicine man were over, at least for the time being. Santa raised his hand half-heartedly in peace to Charley Horse, who raised his in return, then walked over to his sleigh where he had left it in a meadow near the medicine man’s teepee.
“Santa climbed into his sleigh and sat there for a moment trying to clear his head. How would he make amends with Charley Horse? Whatever he did, Santa was not going to be eating raw prairie dog livers every time he dropped off a present for a Blackfeet child. ‘I’d sooner eat my socks,’ he said to himself. Impatient to get back to his headquarters up in theRockiesonGoing-to-the-Sun Road, Santa cracked his whip over the antlers of his reindeer and sat back expecting the customary thrill of acceleration. Nothing happened.”
Edgar looked up mischievously at Oxana and Autry, then he continued. “’On Dancer! On Prancer!’ Santa shouted. ‘On, Donner and Blitzen. Get the lead out!’ With the next crack of his whip, the reindeer started running across the meadow, but they were unable to gain altitude. Instead of rising up into the air, the sleigh bounced violently along on the ground, knocking off Santa’s cap and tossing him from pillar to post, almost pitching him out onto the ground. It was as if there were eight bucking broncos hitched to his sleigh. With no chance of flying, his only objective was to remain upright. At the far end of the meadow, he pulled back on the brake with all his might and the sleigh ended up sideways in a thicket of prickly pear trees. When he tried to climb down from the sleigh, the reindeer lurched forward and threw Santa into the prickles. His Christmas spirit was at an all-time low as he made his way out of the thicket and began to inspect his reindeer. He looked into their eyes. He examined their hooves. He saw that they were breathing heavily, but there was nothing he could see that was wrong with them. Of course, it was the middle of the night and dark as a coal mine.
“‘Easy now, boys,’ Santa said. ‘Let’s turn this buggy aroun’ an’ have another go at ‘er.’ He took Dancer’s harness and pulled him around so that all eight reindeer were headed back across the meadow toward the medicine man’s teepee. Normally, the reindeer only needed a yard or two for a takeoff, but they’d just run a hundred yards and still hadn’t managed to get airborne. As Santa was holding Dancer’s harness, he felt something dangling from it. Taking off his glove, he examined the object with his bare hand. It was a bell the size of a walnut. He pulled it loose from the harness and took it to the sleigh. Reaching under the dashboard, he took out a small pack which held his pipe, his own tobacco (much weaker than the medicine man’s) and matches. He examined the bell by the light of a match. It was made of fired clay, and there was something printed on it that Santa couldn’t make out. ‘Well, I’ll be danged,’ he muttered.”
“I knew it,” said Autry stretching his legs. “Charley Horse cast a spell on the reindeer.”
“That’s right,” said Edgar, then went on reading. “As Santa expected, he found a bell hanging from every reindeer’s harness. After he collected all eight bells and crushed them under the heels of his cowboy boots, Santa was immediately able to coax his chargers back into the air. He buzzed Charley Horse’s teepee at about 30 feet. When he tilted the sleigh and looked down, he saw the old medicine man looking up at him, smiling and waving. He was wearing Santa’s hat!
“Now, when Santa is angry, he chews on the tip of his beard. By the time he got back to his headquarters in theRockies, his beard was two inches shorter. Early the next morning, he told his head elf, Mr. McNish, to summon all the elves from the Cowboys and Indians Division for a production meeting. ‘I want ya to prepare fer a major retoolin’,’ he told them. ‘From now on, I don’ want no games where cowboys an’ Indians are killin’ one another. In fact, we’re gonna stop manufacturin’ six-shooters, tomahawks, bows an’ arrows an’ all that kinda thing, at least here in the West.’ The elves were clearly disappointed. Everyone, including the elves, liked to play ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ Santa was undeterred.
“’Another thing: I wanna new board game, let’s call it Medicine Man, with some genuine history worked inta it. An’ finally, I don’ wanna see the word ‘Indian’ on any of our toy headdresses, beaded vests an’ sich like. I wanna use the words, ‘Native American.’ These people ain’ fromIndia, they’re from right here on the Plains. Matter of fact, they wus here long before we ever arrived! Ya got it? Okay, let’s git movin’ men. Crack a shirttail!’ Santa clapped his hands. ‘There ain’ many more nights left before Christmas Eve!’
“After the production meeting, Santa summoned his head elf, Mr. McNish. Santa sat down at his desk, very gingerly, pulled off his cowboy boots and was about to throw them into the corner when he saw one of Charley Horse’s magic bells wedged against one of his heels.
“’McNish,’ Santa said, ‘send this here funny lookin’ bell up ta the North Pole an’ have the Crossword Puzzle boys and Chemistry Set fellas run a check on it. I wanna see a translation of the writin’ on the bell an’ I wanna git an analysis of the magic potion that’s in it. That’s powerful stuff.’
“Santa leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk. ‘One last thing. I’m gonna need a new hat. See if you kin come up with one, willya?’”
This book is available to e-readers on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. It is also available to read on Smashwordsand to hear (the author reading) on PodioBooks. Sample the audio version at http://dl.dropbox.com/u/40062995/Girouette%2001.mp3.
Michael Lowell Welch… grew up in the Midwest and as a boy of 13—Autry’s age in Next Christmas in Girouette—he helped his grandfather farm with horses. “My grandfather, like the Amish who lived nearby, loved to work with horses,” says Michael. “I have woven my memories of him into this book. My grandmother is in the book as well, along with the town constable, who kept watch over our little village while operating her sewing shop in Cardington, Ohio.”
Also woven into the book are memories of the serial Christmas stories that covered the back page of The Marion Star, the newspaper Michael grew up reading, along with the radio dramas that were still popular in the early 1950s. “The little town of Girouette is modeled to some extent after East Glacier, Montana,” Michael says, “where my daughters and I spent an unforgettable week one August on a horse-packing trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. One day, we’ll return to Montana in December to see what a western Christmas really looks like.”
Michael, whose acting background comes through in the audio version of Next Christmas in Girouette (available on Podiobooks), spent four years teaching young children in the Philippines with the Peace Corps and in Appalachia after he returned from overseas. He earned a Masters Degree in Education with the idea of writing books like this, and then spent 40 years as a PR director and development officer. “It’s just like John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ As least, that’s what happened to me,” Michael says. “Now I’m back to writing for children and loving it.”
Michael’s younger daughter, Dylan, illustrated the book drawing upon a visit with her father to a ghost town in the California Sierras called Bodie. His older daughter, Kat, is doing the PR for the Next Christmas in Girouette.
Visit Michael online at http://girouettechristmas.tumblr.com/.