Christmas for Cowboy Joe
I heard or read this story quite a few years ago. I'm not sure where it came from, so I don't know to whom to attribute it. I wish I did, and I hope they don't mind if I share this story with you. I was totally charmed by it, and it stuck all this time. I did finally discover the correct attribution for this story: "Stubby Pringle’s Christmas" by Jack Warner Schaffer.
High in the Nevada mountains, a little cabin nestles against the rugged landscape. It's the home of Cowboy Joe.
Cowboy Joe got on his horse. He looks like a bear, covered with a furry serape, bundled thickly against the cold and snow. He has double layers of socks crowding his toes in his boots, and his battered old Stetson is pulled down over his face.
Cowboy Joe loves his horse, named Mary Jane. The animal doesn't look like much--a stringy roan mare from the ramada. But man that horse can go! It has iron for bones and dynamite for blood, and has the endurance of a team of oxen.
Joe stands up in the stirrups, scanning the landscape of snow and trees and rocks. He grins, looking forward so much to tonight's festivities. He's headed for a Christmas dance at the schoolhouse. He's just a young man, after all. Next week he turns twenty. He has a box of candy wrapped carefully in burlap, hidden for several weeks from his ranch-hand buddies, and now nestling in his saddlebag, as a hidden weapon to open the campaign for the arm and heart of a sweet young thing at the dance.
Cowboy Joe looks back over his shoulder as a fellow hand, Jake, comes to the doorway of the cabin.
"I could've eat them chocolates, you know. They wasn't hid good at all," Jake says.
"Ha!" Joe says, "You do that and I'd be after you. Wring you out like a dirty washrag."
"By a youngun like you?" Jake says. He shakes his head. "You're a fool to be riding out on this cold, cold night, even if it IS Christmas Eve. Iffen I was you, I'd staid right home. But then again, if I was your age, maybe not. Maybe I'd be along of the dance, too."
Joe giddaps Mary Jane into the wicked winter wind. He rides down the ridge, into the biting wind, smiling to beat the band, just picturing his great night out, with all the music and laughter and dancing and girls. (Especially the girls!) He's been hard at work and isolated for months and months on end, and is just in the perfect mood to enjoy a just reward for all his labors.
"Hold up, Mary Jane" Joe says to the horse. Joe hears something, off to the left of the next ridge, he thinks. Joe has terrific good ears, and he's been out on the range long enough to get curious and check out any strange noises he hears. A habit that serves him well.
There. That noise again. Somebody chopping wood?
"Who in the blazes, what kinda gormless fool would be chopping wood on this night?" Joe asks the horse.
He rides over, finding the direction by ear. He closes in to the sound, recognizing that he's getting closer to the Chester's place, a little homestead out in the range. Fools, Joe thinks. Trying to get a living on land that just barely feeds the coyotes and the crows. Scrub pasture, the worst of the lot, and those poor folks trying not to die of thirst in the summer or freeze to death in the winter, or just plain starve for five years, to get their free 160 acres of land from the gov-mint.
In the deepening grey twilight he sees a woman. Her face is a shallow dish, lined with hunger and fatigue. She wears an old man's coat; a stocking cap is pulled over her ears, but her hands are bare. She stands by a pile of dead tree branches, and her weakened arms can barely lift the axe.
"Whoa-up here!" Cowboy Joe says.
She drops the axe and backs away, startled to see a man on a horse in the gloaming. She's ready to bolt into the crazily leaning bark-and-board shanty behind her, when she sees the crooked grin on Joe's face and decides it might be alright.
"Ma'am", says Joe, sweeping off his beat-up old Stetson, "you trying to hurt yerself? That's man's work--where's yer man?"
"Inside," she says. "Sick."
"Bad?" Joe asks.
""Was." Mrs. Chester says. "He's some better now. Doctor just says he needs rest. He's mighty weak, awful wobbly on his legs. Tried to get out of bed to put his pants on and fell flat to the floor. He's plumb wore out."
"Ain't you tard too?" Joe asks.
"Don't got time to be tard."
Joe looks out across the ridge to where he can just barely see the lights of the schoolhouse gleaming. "Reckon they ain't but just started yet," he mumbles to himself.
Joe gets off the horse, and takes the axe from the woman. "You get yourself inside now, ma'am. Warm up those hands. Leave this chopping chore to me."
Mary Jane stands with drooping head and drooping reins, looking on curiously while Cowboy Joe hefts the axe. He is the Maverick of the Triple X, with thews and sinews of mighty strength, chopping and chopping, working up a fine work-sweat on his good-natured brow.
"Chore done and done right, "Joe says to himself, as he looks with pride on both corners of the front room by the fireplace filled with stout cords of wood. "Enough to last 'em the winter, meybe."
Mr. Chester lies on the big old bed near the opposite wall, grey-faced and lightly snoring. Mrs. Chester bustles towards the stove.
"Cuppa coffee to warm you up?"
"Thank you, that's right kindly of you, ma'am," Joe says.
Joe peeks behind the curtain of the back room. He sees a curly headed little girl under one old quilt, and a boy that would be waist-high standing, laying head-to-toe, and dreaming of...what? Sugarplums? In this bleak landscape? With their da sick?
"Where's the Christmas tree?" Joe says. "Them cute little devils oughta have a tree."
"No time...no strength, I just guess," Mrs. Chester says.
"Well, won't take but a minute. I saw a beauty, a piece back. Hang on, I'll be right back."
Joe goes out, and finds the tree he's thinking of. Couple of strong blows from the axe does the trick, and he lashes two pieces of wood to the bottom, crosswise, so the tree can stand up. He comes back to the shack, carrying the tree. He sets it up in the middle of the front room, and it's just the right size, lushly green, filling the shanty with the deep delicious smell of an evergreen forest.
"There you go, m'am," Joe says, tipping his hat. "I'd best be going now, while the dance is still on. Get the things out and start decorating, and the kids'll have at least the tree for Christmas!"
He stops in the doorway. He hears Mrs. Chester sigh. "All the money was took during the sickness," she says. "We have nothing to decorate it with."
Joe stands stock still in the doorway. He looks across the ridge to the schoolhouse lights. "Reckon I still have a little time," he says. "They'll keep the party going pretty late."
Joe turns back into the room, closing the door. He takes off his hat, strips off his coat. He works wonders with a few pinto beans and some thread, to make colorful beaded chains; he finds some fleeces from the inside of gloves to make snow for the tree, and some colorful red strips of cloth from his bandanna,which he tied into bows. He has the ingenuity born of poverty and also a pair of naturally clever hands.
"A right nice lil' ole tree," he says. "Nothing to put under it?" Joe asks, without much hope.
He keeps his back turned. Somehow he knows two tears have slipped down Mrs. Chester's cheeks.
"It's all right," she says. "You get along now. We're grateful to ya. It's a lot more'n we woulda had, if not for you. They're good youn'uns. They're not expecting a thing."
"All the more reason," Joe says, softly, under his breath. He goes out, retrieves the candy wrapped in burlap from his saddle bag.
He drops the parcel into Mrs. Chester's lap. He says, "Merry Christmas," and goes out the door quickly, before she can overwhelm him with her thanks.
Joe rides out over the ridge, just in time to see the twinkling lights in the schoolhouse windows go out, one by one.
He turns Mary Jane towards home, with a sigh, thinking of dances not danced and girls not flirted with, and jogs along in the saddle, half asleep from all his strenuous labors.
As he nears his lonely cabin, he hears sleighbells, and looks up to the sky, unbelieving in his mind but sure in his heart,--and there he his, Santa Claus, a jolly old soul, in a shining red suit, with a sleigh and reindeer, barely glimpsed through the icy wind and swirling snow.
"Weeeeelllllll done, pardner!" Joe hears Santa call, as the sleigh bells fade into the wind.
If you're in the mood for giving, check out:
- World Hunger Notes Homepage
World Hunger Notes, an on-line magazine about world hunger and poverty in the United States, is published by World Hunger Education Service (WHES).