By Kevin Gonzalez
Jose Carpentero’s sweaty right hand clutched the splintered grips of a rusty, cap-and-ball Colt revolver under his threadbare serape as he nursed a warm beer in the dark corner of The Drovers Rest, considered the best of Panacea’s three saloons.
Outside in the alley alongside the establishment, his pregnant wife Maria waited, no doubt even more nervous and jittery than her husband. He was planning to rob the bartender of the night’s take after the last patrons scampered back home to join their families for Christmas Eve.
Jose hoped it would go better than his last two attempts of being the reincarnation of Joaquin Murrieta. He had brandished his big horse pistol at a traveler on the trail to Tucson and demanded money. But his would-be victim whipped out a small pocket pistol in retaliation. However, in his haste, the man shot himself in the fleshy part of his thigh instead of the bandit.
“You know,” recalled the victim much later to his friends, “from the way he carried on, you would have thought he’d been shot. Anyway, he bandaged me up proper and stopped the bleeding. He got me back up on my horse and let me go, he was so upset. Even forgot to get my money. I got a good look at his gun. Heck, I don’t think the darn thing was even loaded.”
All the man could say was that his assailant had been a Mexican.
The other time, Jose had tried to rob an old rancher who had made a withdrawal at the Panacea bank. “It’s not for me,” blubbered the grandfather at gunpoint. “It’s for my son and his family. They need it for Christmas presents and food.” Jose had felt so ashamed, he gave it all back.
The local law did find out about these incidents and posted a $100 reward. The irony stung him like a cactus needle. That was exactly the amount of money he needed to pay off his loan and reclaim his ranch.
That wanted posters described “an unidentified Mexican” wanted for armed robbery. Armed! I have this old pistola that I dig up one day while making a vegetable garden for my wife, thought Jose. I clean it up and oil it, but do not have powder and lead. But it still looks dangerous.
But I myself am not dangerous. I am as big a failure as a robber as I am as a rancher, he thought, staring into his beer. I lose my ranch because I cannot pay back the loan that I have to take to buy the medicine and the food that my sick wife needs so badly. Then the bank forecloses on me and the county sheriff evicts me from my own land. Now it is Christmas and I am forced to steal so we do not starve except that I cannot do even that because I feel so much shame. I fail at everything.
He looked up as Solomon Pliskin, the Jewish merchant known as Secondhand Sol, walked into the saloon. He was dressed in usual dark wool suit and bowler.
“Sarsaparilla, please, Mr. Walker,” he said, slapping a nickel on the bar.
Bartender Milt Walker uncapped a bottle of the sweet, fizzy drink that Sol enjoyed so much. He took a foamy sip, sighed in satisfaction, and set the bottle back down on the bar.
“Hello,” he said to Carpentero.
“Hola,” replied Jose before he could stop himself.
Walking over to the table, bottle in hand, Sol smiled. “Having one last drink before going home to enjoy the holiday? Me, too.”
“But I have no home,” blurted out Jose. “And there are no places for me and my wife, who is expecting a child, to stay. We must have shelter and food.”
“You could stay with my family,” offered Sol. “It is the first night of Hanukkah, which on this year is on Christmas Eve. Come share the joy of the holidays with us.”
“But I am a Catholic, not un judio, a Jew.”
Pliskin smiled. “You know, people say that Hanukkah is the Jewish version of Christmas because of the time of the year upon which it falls. But that is not true. Our tradition began much earlier. Hanukkah has its start in 165 B.C. when Judas Maccabee and his brothers defeat the Syrians. Following their victory, they rededicated the temple at Jerusalem, which had been sacked and looted by the enemy. But when they searched for holy oil to light the lamp in the temple, they found only a single cruse of oil that should have burned for just one day. And yet it continued burning for eight days, which is why we light candles, one for each evening for eight days, to commemorate that miracle.
“But only an enemy focuses on differences,” he continued. “Friends should look to their common ground. And this we share about this time of year. Hanukkah and Christmas are both religious celebrations of a miracle. Yes, there are gifts to exchange. And happy families of both faiths join together and share the festive joy in song and prayer, good cheer and food.
“But best of all,” Sol continued, “there are the lights. Christians have their trees and Jews have their menorahs upon which we place candles. The light of the holidays symbolizes love and faith to brighten our darkest days. So all of us who celebrate that light are blessed with happiness and hope, no matter what our religion. This we share and this is what should bind us together as brothers and sisters in a time of celebration.”
Jose began weeping. “But I have no happiness or hope. Please go away. I am here to rob this cantina so I can provide for my wife and soon, our new baby.”
He tugged out his rusty relic of a revolver and brought it down on the table.
Milt Walker looked up in alarm and reached for a shotgun under the counter. Sol raised an open palm in his direction and frowned, shaking his head. The bartender nodded, took off his apron, and left the saloon.
“So you are the Mexican bandito who cannot steal and bandages his victims so they do not bleed to death,” he said.
Jose nodded. “I can do nothing right and yet I can do nothing that is wrong.”
“Your biggest crime isn’t losing your ranch. It’s giving up and losing hope.” Pliskin fell silent for a while, thinking and taking the occasional sip of soda. “But I have a plan,” he said later, “something that might help you. But you would have to trust me to make it work.”
“You would help a man, someone who might have robbed you, even hurt you when I tried to stick up this saloon? I might have hit you with this,” Jose said, raising the old Colt like a club.
“Not a chance,” came a steely voice from the back of the bar.
“Not hardly,” said another from behind the batwing doors of the saloon. The would-be bandit looked up to see that he was caught in a crossfire between an American Colt held by Arizona Ranger Eli Weiss and a British Webley in the hand of Panacea marshal Verdell Hubbard.
Weiss wore his usual duds – worn but clean clothes bleached by the desert sun in which he tracked down wanted men – topped by a weathered straw sombrero. His choice of footwear was moccasins because they allowed him to sneak up on outlaws. Walking into the room Colt-first, the Jewish ranger spoke: “We got word from Milt that you and your new friend were here, so we decided to take a look-see. You know me, always try to be here in time for Hanukkah.”
“You took a big chance,” said Hubbard, who was dressed in a checked wool suit, his usual town outfit. He stowed his Webley into a shoulder rig as he spoke.
“Not me,” answered Sol. He wrenched the big Colt away from Jose. Waving it in the air, he proclaimed with mock severity: “I am placing you under citizen’s arrest!”
Jose felt betrayed.
“Sol, everybody in this room knows that gun is as empty as a drunkard’s promise,” groused Weiss.
“Empty, shmempty,” said Sol. “I arrest this desperado and for that I demand the reward – $100. Cash.”
Jose felt abandoned.
“Yes, reward money that I intend to invest in a small ranch just outside of town,” said Sol.
“My ranch?” asked Jose, feeling worse by the second.
“Well,” said Sol, “I’m a very busy man with my store. Perhaps I can find someone to look after things for me there. Someone trustworthy and hard-working. A family man, perhaps,” he added, looking straight at Jose. “But he would have to renounce his life of crime.”
A small smile began to grow on Carpentero’s face as he realized Pliskin’s plan.
“Call it a Christmas present,” said Sol, who was smiling, too.
“Thank you!” shouted Jose, who stood up and grabbed Pliskin in a hug. “Feliz Navidad! Feliz
“And a Merry Christmas to you too,” replied Sol.
“Wait a minute,” complained Hubbard, holding up both hands. “He’s going to have to serve some jail time for trying to rob those folks, you know.”
“Starting now? On Christmas Eve? Hardly seems, well, Christian,” joked a grinning ranger.
“He can remain in my custody as my most welcome guest for Hanukkah,” declared Pliskin. “And if you lawmen keep guard over him, well, I am sure that there are enough tasty holiday treats to tide the both of you over.”
“Jelly doughnuts,” said Hubbard at once. Then he repeated in Yiddish,
“Latkes,” added the ranger. “Potato pancakes.”
“OK,” they both agreed at the same time to Sol.
“But what about my wife? I leave her outside,” said Jose.
“Before I entered, I heard her crying in the alley, standing there with your donkey. She told me everything, so I sent her home to see my wife Hannah. She’s safe and comfortable, I’m sure,” confessed
“Then you knew all the time …”
“Yes, she told me about your plans of robbing the saloon. I thought I could cheer you up and maybe find a way of out of this.”
“Oy, such a meshuggener,” whispered Hubbard to Weiss.
“Perhaps. But maybe we could use a lot more crazy people just like him,” replied the ranger under his breath. “Especially this time of year.”
“Let us go,” said Pliskin. “We have no tree, but a nice menorah on which to light the first candle to begin our Festival of Lights.”
As the foursome made its way to the Pliskin cottage, Hubbard told Weiss, “Maybe as a lawman I’m just so used to looking at the legal side of things, but there’s something else that people who celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas have in common.”
“What’s that?” said Weiss.
“A thing called the Constitution of the United States of America that gives us citizens the right – no, the freedom – of religion, not just this time of year, but every day,” answered the marshal, as Weiss nodded his agreement.
After a pause, Hubbard asked the ranger, “What does ‘Carpentero’ mean in Mexican anyway?”
“Carpenter,” answered Weiss.
Hubbard nodded. “Thought so. I was thinking, if Maria gives birth real soon to a baby boy that they name ‘Hey-Soos,’” he said, using the Mexican pronunciation of Jesus, “do you think that people will mistake you, me and Sol as the Three Wise Men?”
And then the marshal answered his own question: “Not a chance.”
“Not hardly,” agreed Weiss.
And Solomon Pliskin smiled, hoping that the light in his heart and in his home would remain a beacon of faith, hope and love that would last him every Hanukkah – and maybe Christmas, too – for all the rest of his days.