The cold winds blew down from the mountain tops and into the valley, carrying with them the first lace-like drops of snow. Seth sat in his rocking chair on the front porch of his tiny wooden shack, his quilt wrapped around him tightly, enjoying long pulls from his tobacco pipe. He had built his humble home in the shadows between the two mountain peaks, neither of which he ever learned the civilized names of. Seth ran his fingers through his long white hair and scratched his scalp. For over thirty-four years he had been alone, the only visitors were travelers passing thorough the valley on their way to lay claim to land in the west. During the winter months when the passes were snowed in, Seth might as well have lived in the back of beyond, but he never minded the solitude. Standing up, Seth walked to the rail of the porch and tapped out the last hot embers of soot from his pipe. He looked out and gazed around him, noting that the green of the grass had gone brown; he knew it would soon be blanketed with white.
“Another cold winter”, Seth said to himself in a whispered voice. He stood there letting his mind wander a bit, reminiscing about the years gone past. “Not quite so lonely as I like, eh?” he worked his fingers along his jaw line and pulled at his beard. “I think this winter you come ta visit again.” He slipped the pipe into his jacket pocket and turned around, shuffling to the front door. He stopped just at the threshold and reached up, pulling a horseshoe down from where it hung by a nail. “I think you come to visit me again this winter, but this time I am ready.” He let out a coarse chuckle as he pulled up on the latch, opened the door, entered his humble home and locked it behind him.
The weeks rolled on and the snow came down in abundance. On the days that it didn’t snow, Seth went out and chopped wood or cleared ice from his roof. On the days that it did, he stayed inside by his desk and read or whittled at a block of wood. At night he always cooked himself the same meal—salted deer stew with potatoes and carrots—while sipping at his spirits from a clay jug. Seth took his meals by the fireplace but always made sure to lay out a second plate at the table.
One night Seth drank a little too much and a drunken slumber overcame him, the lit pipe still in his mouth, the tendrils of smoke moving with the rise and fall of his breath. It was only the odd, but soft, scraping of wood on wood that woke him up. Startled, he rose slowly in is chair and turned his head back to the room behind him. There, sitting at his dining table, was the guest he had been waiting for. Something more animal than man spooned stew into its mouth, humming between every morsel. Eyesblack as polished onyx were set close together on a rat-like face. Its skin was the color of ash, and long gray hair sprouted forming the mustache, beard, and mane of the creature. It was dressed in a patchy red coat that covered its entire body, and upon its head sat an old top hat. Seth knew to wait for it to finish its meal before saying anything, so he settled back into his chair, relighting his pipe from the fireplace with a piece of straw.
“Too much smoke always makes me choke,” said the little creature, its voice high-pitched and scratchy.
Seth used the leather like palm of his hand to snuff out the pipe and moved to sit at a spot across the table from his dinner guest. “And just who might you be?” he said as he settled into place. Seth knew who this being was, even if he didn’t know what it was. The politics when dealing with its kind was not something set in stone; it was sketchy and changed from meeting to meeting. Seth had made the mistake once of addressing the creature by a name given previously, sending it into a rage. Consequently the whole winter after Seth had been plagued by the appearance of a mysterious pack of black wolves that had almost taken his life.
“Ho ho!” the creature chortled, standing to full height on the chair and climbing up onto the table top. “Here before you stands The Red Man, not born of woman, nor son of man, my kith and kin are of different clan.” It reached into the confines of it coat, pulled out a pipe, and started smoking. “But you may call me Jasper Dan,” it said with a toothy smile.
The introduction done, Seth knew now to proceed. “Tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Jasper Dan.” He extended his arm, the gesture to shake hands. The creature as always just sniffed once or twice at his fingertips before withdrawing backwards a few steps. Seth had done this the first time many years ago with the intention of a proper gentleman’s greeting, but over time that turned into a desire to touch it, with thoughts of perhaps capturing it. Now, he did it out of amusement at seeing how this bothered the imp. “How can I be of service to you, kind sir?” he asked withdrawing his hand and lighting his own pipe back up. “Perhaps more stew for ya belly, ah traveler like yourself must work up a mighty appetite on his journeys.” Seth sat back and locked eyes with the creature, a chill running down his spine. He could never hold its gaze, in all the years he had always turned his eyes away. Shaking the feeling off with a shiver, he continued with the pleasantries. “Perhaps ya coat needs mending, I’ve been told I’m might fine with ah needle and thread.”
Jasper Dan just stood staring back at Seth, a grin coming to its face. “Your hospitality is gracious it’s true, but I am here for what I can do for you.” It finished its words, pointing a tiny finger with a bluish black nail at him.
Seth sat back in his chair and puffed at his pipe; now he had it just where he wanted it. The erratic mood swings of the creature was contradicted by its strict need to follow rules and protocol. This is what Seth had used to his advantage over the years of dealing with the Red man. Its offer to help was only a ploy for its own amusement to get Seth to play a game. The games were anything from random chance of a coin toss to, pick up sticks, or running a foot race. Winning had earned Seth many good things from the creature, tools that never needed sharpening, crops that grew with little fertilizer, and a roof that never leaked. To lose to the creature could mean being subjected to either burden or annoyance. These bad consequences were of no effect to Seth. He had dealt with every loss that came his way up until six years ago. He had won a game against Jasper Dan and named his prize, a companion to keep him company in his valley home; that very summer a caravan came through the valley, bringing with it Eliza. Seth had been enchanted from first sight and wooed her into staying with him. Winter had come again and with it, Jasper Dan and another game to play. Seth had made the error of declining the little man his fun, and Eliza had paid the price with her life. She was at the woods edge hunting for fire tinder and in the tall snow bank stepped on a poisonous snake that did her in with one bite. Never before had Seth seen a snake in his valley, and never in winter. Like the black wolves, he knew who had brought the serpent. That was when the horseshoe went above the door, and iron nails were placed at every window sill.
The grinding of tiny, sharp teeth now brought Seth out of his thoughts. He looked up at Jasper Dan and noted the impatience on the creatures face. “It would be much appreciated if I could get help with maintaining a proper chicken coup.” Seth threw both hands up in the air in a sign of feigned defeat. “Seems I just can’t keep them foxes out.”
“Jasper Dan can help with your plan and make things right to end your plight,” it sang as it started doing a jig, making the bowl and spoon dance along together on the table top.
“That would be wondrous,” Seth said smiling. Suddenly, Jasper Dan stopped his spinning and stood still as stone.
“Before any finger I can lift, to give to you such a special gift, you must first, it is a shame, beat me in a little game.” It paused in its speech and reaching up under its top hat, produced a steaming cup of tea placed on a chipped saucer. It took a sip and sat down Indian style, placing the tea cup on its lap.
“Oh, but of course, it would be an honor for me,” Seth replied. “But as you can see, the night is late and I am old. Pray tell can it not wait till the morrow so as I’m refreshed?” Seth placed his hands together as if praying, another gesture like the handshake that always seems to unsettle the Red man.
Jasper Dan looked confused; never before had Seth delayed a game against the creature.
“Though it brings me so much sorrow, I will wait until the morrow, and in my sad and woe, I will go,” it replied, tucking the still full tea cup into a pocket and hopping down from the top of the table to the floor.
“Oh no, kind sir, please ya don’t have to go, not out in the cold night, stay here and just wait for me to rise.” The imp looked up at Seth for a while; another thing Seth had never done was to offer it lodging. “Then when I awake we can play what ever game ya have your heart set upon.”
Jasper Dan started to pace, an act Seth had never recalled the imp doing before. The nature of the creature, from what he recalled, was to act on impulse and not to contemplate things. But he knew that creature would, no matter what, keep its word once given.
“You speak no lies, that when your rise, that on your name we shall play a game?” Jasper Dan moved closer looking up at Seth with almost pleading eyes.
“Of course, of course.” Seth moved over to the fire place and hung a kettle from a hook to start some water to boil. “I shall just sip a cup of tea and be off to sleep before no time.” Seth then went behind a make shift divider that stood in the corner of the shack to change into his pajamas. Coming out he found Jasper Dan sitting back on top of the dining table smoking its tiny pipe. “Just one thing, good sir if you could, may I ask of you a favor?” Seth inquired as he emptied a package into his tea cup and poured hot water over it. He sat down at the edge of his bed and took a sip from his steaming brew.
“A favor from me? What could it be?” Jasper Dan asked with a look of annoyance.
Seth took another sip from his tea cup, and thought for a while how to best word what he had to say next. He was pushing the creature’s patience and knew if things went astray it would be disastrous. “Just that you watch over me as I slumber. To keep me and my house safe, so that I am at my best when I rise to play a game with ya.” Seth took a small gulp finishing up his drink. Then he opened another package and poured himself another cup.
Jasper Dan ground his teeth together in what sounded like gravel being stomped upon by horse hooves. “That which you ask is best for us both, and I give to you my solemn oath,” it said rising up and walking to the edge of the table. “That Jasper Dan will stay, and keep all harm from your valley away, and watch over you with my own two eyes, until your slumber’s over and again your rise.” A satisfied grin came over the creature’s face and it blew a couple of smoke-rings in Seth’s direction. “Now all bargaining is through, how satisfied with this are you?”
“More delighted then you will ever know, good sir; I thank you kindly and go to sleep knowing that everything is taken care of.” Seth readied himself for bed by throwing another log of wood on the fire and finishing his tea. He then settled himself into bed and said a silent pray. Laying there, he smiled and thought about his life in the valley and what a good life it had been. He thought about all the travelers that had come and gone and about Eliza. As Seth’ s eyes grew heavy and his breath grew slower, he thought about how he finally had beaten the imp in one final trick, and that brought Seth the most joy. It was the creature’s oath that did it in, the words bound it lock and key, to watch over him until he rose, but Seth knew that day would never come. The tea he had brewed was made from Oleander, and just before he drew his last breath, he heard the soft sounds of smoke being pulled from a tiny pipe.