Fiction

The Cowboy’s Christmas Eve

He is Stubby Pringle, 19-year-old, 10-foot-tall cowhand. And this is his night to howl.

Fiction by Jack Schaefer
Illustrations by Tim Jessell

High on a mountainside by little line cabin in crisp, clean dusk of evening Stubby Pringle swings into saddle.

He has shape of bear in dimness, bundled thick against cold. Fleece-lined jacket with wear of winters on it bulges body, and heavy gloves blunt fingers. Two gay red bandannas folded together fatten throat under chin.

Battered hat is pulled down to sit on ears, and in pocket of jacket are rabbit-skin earflaps on piece of string he can put to use if he needs them.

Stubby Pringle swings up into saddle. He looks out and down over world of snow and ice and tree and rock. He spreads arms wide, and they embrace whole ranges of hills. He stretches tall, and hat brushes stars in sky. He is Stubby Pringle, cowhand of the Triple X, and this is his night to howl. He is Stubby Pringle, son of the wild donkey, and he is heading for the Christmas Eve dance at the schoolhouse in the valley.

Stubby Pringle swings up, and horse stands like rock. This is the pride of his string — flop-eared, ewe-necked, cat-hipped roan that looks like it should have died weeks ago but has iron rods for bones and nitroglycerine for blood. It can go from here to doomsday with nothing more than mouthfuls of snow for water and tufts of winter-cured bunchgrass snatched between drifts for food. It stands lie a rock. It knows the folly of trying to unseat Stubby. It wastes no energy in futile explosions. It knows that 27 miles of hard winter going are foreordained for this evening and 27 more of harder uphill return by morning. It has done this before. It is saving dynamite under its hide for destiny of true cow pony, which is to take its rider where he wants to go — and bring him back again.

Stubby Pringle sits in his saddle and he grins into cold and distance and future full of festivity.

Join me and look at him as this chance offers, at what can be seen despite bundling and frosty breath vapor that soon will land icicles on his nose. Those are careless, haphazard, scrambled features under low hat brim, about as handsome as blue boar’s snout. Not much fuzz yet on chin. Why shucks, is he just a boy? Don’t make that mistake, though his 20th birthday is still six weeks away.

Don’t make mistake Hutch Handley made last summer when he thought this was young unseasoned stuff and took to ragging Stubby and wound up with ears pinned back and upper lip split and nose mashed flat and whole of him dumped in rain barrel. Stubby has been taking care of himself since he was orphaned at 13. Stubby has been doing man’s work since he was 15. Do you think Hardrock Harper of the Triple X would have anything but all-around hard-proved hand up here at farthest winter line camp with old Jake Hanlon, toughest old cowman ever to ride range?

Stubby Pringle slips gloved hand under rump to wipe frost off saddle. No sense letting it melt into patches of corduroy pants. He slaps right-side saddlebag. It holds burlap bag wrapped around two-pound box of candy, of fancy chocolates with variegated interiors he acquired two months ago and has kept hidden from old Jake. He slaps left-side saddlebag. It holds burlap bag wrapped around paper parcel that contains close-folded piece of fine dress goods and roll of pink ribbon. Interesting items, yes? They are ammunition for the campaign he has in mind to soften affections of whichever female of right vintage among those at the schoolhouse appeals to him most and seems most susceptible.

Stubby Pringle settles himself firmly into saddle. He is just another of far-scattered, poorly paid, patched-clothes cowhands who inhabit these parts, and likely marks and smells of his calling have not all been scrubbed away. He knows that. But this is his night to howl. He is Stubby Pringle, true begotten son of the wildest jackass, and he has been riding line for two months without a break, and he has done his share of work and more because old Jake is getting along and slowing some, and this is his night to stomp floorboards till schoolhouse shakes and kick heels up to lanterns above and whirl a willing female till she is dizzy. He wriggles toes deep into stirrups and settles himself in saddle.

“I could of et them choc’lates,” says old Jake from cabin doorway. “They wasn’t hid good,” he says. “No good at all.”

“An’ be beat like a drum,” says Stubby. “An’ wrung out like a dirty dishrag.”

“By who?” says old Jake. “By a young un like you? Why, I’d of tied you in knots afore you knew what’s what iffen you tried it. You’re a dang-blatted young fool,!’ he says. “A ding-busted, dang-blatted young fool. Riding out on a night like this iffen it is Chris’mas Eve. A dong-bonging, ding-busted, dang-blatted fool,” he says. “But iffen I was your age agin, I reckon I’d be doing it too.” He cackles like old rooster. “Squeeze one of ’em for me,” he says, and he steps back inside and he closes door.

Stubby Pringle is alone out there in darkening dusk, alone with flop-eared, ewe-necked, cat-hipped roan that can go to last trumpet call under him, and with cold of wicked winter wind around him and with 27 miles of snow- dumped distance ahead of him.

‘Wahoo!” he yells. “Skip to my Lou!” he shouts. “Do-si-do and round about!”

He lifts reins, and roan sighs and lifts feet. At easy warming-up amble they drop over edge of benchland where cabin snugs into tall pines and on down great bleak expanse of mountainside.

Stubby Pringle, spurs a-jingle, jogs through crusted snow.

Roan horse, warmed through, moves strong and steady under him. Line cabin and line work are far forgotten things back and back and up and up the mighty mass of mountain. He is Stubby Pringle, rooting, tooting, hardworking, hard-playing cowhand of the Triple X heading for the Christmas dance at the schoolhouse in the valley.

He tops out on one of lower ridges. He pulls reins to give roan a breather. He brushes icicles off his nose. He leans forward and reaches to brush several more off sidebars of old bit in bridle. He straightens tall. Far ahead, over top of last and lowest ridge, on into valley, he can see tiny specks of glowing allure that are schoolhouse windows. Light and gaiety and fluttering skirts are there.

“Wahoo!” he yells. “Gals an’ women an’ grandmothers!” he shouts. “Raise your skirts an’ start a-skipping! I’m a-coming!”

He slaps spurs to roan. It leaps like mountain lion, out and down, full into hard gallop downslope, rushing, reckless of crusted drifts and ice-coated bush branches slapping at them. He is Stubby Pringle, born with spurs on, nursed on tarantula juice, weaned on rawhide, at home in saddle of hurricane in shape of horse that can race to outer edge of eternity and back, heading now for high jinks two months overdue. He is 10 feet tall, and the horse is a giant with wings, iron-boned and fueled by dynamite, soaring in 40-foot leaps down the flank of the whitened wonder of a winter world.

They slow at bottom. They stop. They look up rise of last low ridge ahead.

Roan paws frozen ground and snorts twin plumes of frosty vapor. Stubby reached back to pull down fleece-lined jacket that has worked a bit up back. He pats right-side saddlebag. He pats left-side saddlebag. He lifts reins to soar up and over last low ridge.

Hold it, Stubby. What is that to the right?

He listens. He has ears that can catch snitch of mouse chewing on bacon rind beyond log wall by his bunk. He hears. Sound of ax striking wood.

What kind of dong-bonging, ding-busted, dang-blatted fool would be chopping wood on night like this and on Christmas Eve and with a dance under way at schoolhouse in the valley? What kind of chopping is this anyway? Uneven in rhythm, feeble in stroke. Trust Stubby Pringle, who has chopped enough wood for cookstove and fireplace to fill long freight train, to know how an ax should be handled.

There. That does it. That whopping sound can only mean that blade has hit an angle and bounced away without biting. Some dong-bonging, ding-busted, dang-blatted fool dag-blatted fool is going to be cutting off some of his own toes.

He pulls roan around to the right. He is Stubby Pringle, born to tune of bawling bulls and blatting calves, branded at birth, cowman raised and cowman to the marrow, and no true cowman ever rides on without stopping to check anything strange on range. Roan chomps on bit, annoyed at interruption. It remembers who is in saddle. It sighs and obeys. They move quietly in dark of night past boles of trees jet black against dim grayness of crusted snow on ground. Light shows faintly ahead. Lantern light through small oil-papered window.

Yes. Of course. Just where it has been for eight months now. The Henderson place. Man and woman and small girl and waist-high boy. Homesteaders. Not even fools, homesteaders. Worse than that. Out of their minds altogether. All of them. Out here anyway. Betting the government they can stave off starving for five years in exchange for 160 acres of land. Land that just might be able to support seven jackrabbits and two coyotes and nine rattlesnakes and maybe all of four thin steers to a whole section. In a good year. Homesteaders. Always almost out of almost everything: money and food and tools and smiles and joy of living. Everything. Except maybe hope and stubborn endurance.

Stubby Pringle nudges reluctant roan along. In patch light from window by tangled pile of dead tree branches he sees a woman. Her face is gray and pinched and tired. Old stocking cap is pulled down on head. Ragged jacket bumps over long woolsey dress and clogs arms as she tries to swing ax into good-sized branch on ground.

Whopping sound and ax bounces and barely misses an ankle.

“Quit that!” says Stubby, sharp. He swings roan in close. He looks down at her. She drops ax and backs away, frightened. She is ready to bolt into two-room bark-slab shack. She looks up. She sees that haphazard scrabble-featured face is crinkled in a grin. She relaxes some, hand on door latch.

“Ma’am,” says Stubby. “You trying to cripple yourself?” She just stares at him. “Man’s work,” he says. “Where’s your man?”

“Inside,” she says. Then quick, “He’s sick.”

“Bad?” says Stubby.

Was,” she says. “Doctor that was here this morning thinks he’ll be all right now. Only he’s mighty weak. All wobbly. Sleeps most the time.”

“Sleeps,” says Stubby, indignant. “When there’s wood to be chopped.”

“He’s been almighty tired,” she says quick, defensive. “Even ’fore he was took sick. Wore out.” She is rubbing cold hands together, trying to warm them. “He tried,” she says, proud. “Just a while ago. Couldn’t even get his pants on. Just fell flat on the floor.”

Stubby looks down at her. “An’ you ain’t tired?”

“I ain’t got time to be tired,” she says. “Not with all I got to do.”

Stubby Pringle looks off past dark boles of trees at last row ridge top that hides valley and schoolhouse.

“I reckon I could spare a bit of time,” he says. “Likely they ain’t much more’n started yet,” he says. He looks again at the woman. He sees gray pinched face. He sees cold shivering under bumpy jacket “Ma’am,” he says. “Get in there an’ warm your gizzard some. I’ll just chop you a bit of wood.”

Roan stands with drooping reins, ground-tied, disgusted. It shakes head to send icicles tinkling from bit and bridle. Stopped in midst of epic run, wind-eating, mile-gobbling, iron-boned and dynamite-fueled, and for what? For silly chore of chopping.

Fifteen feet away Stubby Pringle chops wood. Moon is rising over last low ridgetop, and its light shines on leaping blade. He is Stubby Pringle, moonstruck maverick of the Triple X, born with ax in hands, with strength of strokes in muscles, weaned on whetstone, fed on cordwood, raised to fell whole forests. He is 10 feet tall, and ax is enormous in moonlight, and chips fly like storm flakes of snow, and blade slices through branches as thick as his arm, through logs as thick as his thigh.

He leans ax against a stump and he spreads arms wide, and he scoops up whole cords at a time and strides to door and kicks it open.

Both corners of front room by fireplace are piled full now, floor to ceiling, good wood, stout wood, seasoned wood.

Chore done and done right, Stubby looks around him. Fire is burning bright and well fed, working on warmth. Man lies on big old bed along opposite wall, blanket over, eyes closed, face gray-pale, snoring long and slow. Woman fusses with something at stove. Stubby steps to doorway of back room. He pulls aside hanging cloth. Faint in dimness he sees two bunks and in one, under old quilt, curly-headed small girl and in other, under another old quilt, boy who would be waist-high, awake and standing. He sees them still and quiet, sleeping sound. “Cute little devils,” he says.

He turns back and woman is coming toward him, cup of coffee in hand, strong and warm. He takes cup and drains it in two gulps. “Thank you, ma’am,” he says. “That was right kind of you.” He sets cup on table. “I got to be getting along,” he says. He starts toward outer door.

He stops, hand on door latch. Something is missing in two-room shack. Trust Stubby Pringle to know what. “Where’s your tree?” he says. “Kids got to have a Christmas tree.”

He sees woman sink down on chair. He hears her sigh. ‘‘I ain’t had time to cut one,” she says.

“I reckon not,” says Stubby. “Man’s job anyway,” he says. “I’ll get it for you. Won’t take a minute. Then I got to be going.”

He strides out. He scoops up ax and strides off upslope where small pines climb. He stretches tall and his legs lengthen and he towers huge among trees, swinging with 10-foot steps. He is Stubby Pringle, born an expert on Christmas trees, weaned on pinecones, fed on pine needles, raised with an eye for size and shape and symmetry. There. A beauty. Perfect. Grown for this and for nothing else. Ax blade slices keen and swift. Tree topples. He strides back with tree on shoulder. With leather whangs ripped from saddle, he lashes two pieces of wood to bottom, crosswise, so tree can stand upright again.

Stubby Pringle strides into shack carrying tree. He sets it up, center of front-room floor, and it stands straight, trim and straight, perky and proud and pointed. “There you are, ma’am,” he says. “Get your things an’ start decorating. I got to be going.” He moves toward outer door.

He stops in open doorway. He hears a sigh. We got no things,” she says. “I was figuring to buy some, but sickness took the money.”

Stubby Pringle looks off at last low ridge top hiding valley and schoolhouse.

“Reckon I still got a bit of time,” he says. “They’ll be whooping it mighty late.” He turns back, closing door. He moves about checking everything in sparse front room. He asks for things, and woman jumps to get those few of them she has. He tells her what to do, and she does. He does plenty himself. With this and that, magic wonders arrive. He is Stubby Pringle, born to poverty and hard work, weaned on nothing, fed on less, raised to make do with least possible and make the most of that. Pinto beans strung on a thread brighten tree in firelight and lantern light like strings of store-bought beads. Strips of one bandanna, cut with sheers from sewing box, bob in bows on branch ends like gay red flowers. Snippets of fleece from jacket lining sprinkled over tree glisten like fresh fall of snow. Miracles flow from strong blunt fingers through bits of old paper bags and dabs of flour paste into link chains and twisted small streamers and two jaunty little hats and two smart little boats with sails.

“Got to finish it right,” says Stubby Pringle. From strong blunt fingers comes five-pointed star, triple-thickness to make it stiff, twisted bit of old wire to hold it upright. He fastens this to topmost tip of topmost bough. He wraps lone bandanna around throat and jams battered hat on head and shrugs into now-skimpy-lined jacket.

“A right nice little tree,” he says. ”All you got to do now is get out what you got for the kids and put it under. I really got to be going.” He starts toward outer door.

He stops in open doorway. He hears the sigh behind him. He knows without looking woman has slumped into old rocking chair.

“We ain’t got anything for them,” she says. “Only now this tree. Which I don’t mean it isn’t a fine, grand tree. It’s more’n we’d had except for you.”

Stubby Pringle stands in open doorway looking out into cold clean moonlit night. Somehow he knows without turning head two tears are sliding down thin pinched cheeks. “You go on along,” she says. “They’re good young uns. They know how it is. They ain’t expecting a thing.”

Stubby Pringle stands in open doorway looking out at last low ridge top that hides valley and schoolhouse.

“All the more reason something should be there when they wake.” He sighs too. “I’m a dong-bonging, ding-busted, dang-blatted fool,” he says. “But I reckon I still got a mite more time. Likely they’ll be sashaying around until most morning.”

Stubby Pringle strides on out, leaving door open. He strides back, closing door with heel behind him. In one hand he has burlap bag wrapped around paper parcel. In other hand he has squarish chunk of good pinewood. He tosses bag parcel into lap-folds of woman’s apron.

“Unwrap it,” he says. “There’s the makings for a right cute dress for the girl. Needle-and-threader like you can whip it up in no time. I’ll just whittle me out a little something for the boy.”

Moon is high in cold sky. Frosty clouds drift up there with it.

Tiny flakes of snow float through upper air. Down below by two-room shack droops disgusted cow pony roan, ground-tied, drooping like statue snowcrusted. It is accepting inescapable destiny of its kind, which is to wait for its rider, to conserve dynamite energy, to be ready to race to last margin of motion when waiting is done.

Inside shack, fire cheerily gobbles wood, good wood, stout wood, seasoned wood, warming two rooms well. Man lies in bed, turned on side, curled up some, snoring slow and steady. Woman sits in rocking chair, sewing. Her head nods slow and drowsy, and her eyelids sag weary, but her fingers fly, stitch-stitch-stitch. Dress has shaped under her hands, small and flounced with little puff-sleeves, fine dress, fancy dress, dress for smiles and joy of living. She is sewing pink ribbon around collar and down front and into fluffy bow on back.

On stool nearby sits Stubby Pringle, piece of good pinewood in one hand, knife in other hand, fine knife, all-around accomplished knife, knife he always has with him, seven-bladed knife with four for cutting from little to big and corkscrew and can opener and screwdriver. Big cutting blade has done its work. Little cutting blade is working now. He is Stubby Pringle, born with feel for knives in hand, weaned on emery wheel, fed on shavings, raised to whittle his way through the world. Tiny chips fly and shavings flutter. There in his hands, out of good pinewood, something is shaping. A horse. Yes. Flop-eared, ewe-necked, cat-hipped horse. Flop-eared head is high on ewe-neck, stretched out, sniffing wind, snorting into distance. Cat-hips are hunched forward, caught in crouch for forward leap. It is horse fit to carry waist-high boy to uttermost edge of eternity and back.

Stubby Pringle carves swift and sure. Little cutting blade makes final little cutting snitches. Yes. Tiny mottlings and markings make no mistaking. It is a strawberry roan. He closes knife and puts it in pocket. But woman’s head has dropped down in exhaustion. She sits slumped deep in rocking chair, and she too snores slow and steady.

Stubby Pringle stands up. He takes dress and puts it under tree, fine dress, fancy dress, dress waiting now for small girl to wake and wear it with smiles and joy of living.

He sets wooden horse beside it, fine horse, proud horse, snorting-into-distance horse, cat-hips crouched, waiting for waist-high boy to wake and ride it around the world.

Quietly he piles wood on fire and banks ashes around to hold it for morning. Quietly he pulls on hat and wraps bandanna around and shrugs into kimpy-lined jacket. He looks at old rocking chair and tired woman slumped in it. He strides to outer door and out, leaving door open. He strides back, closing door with heel behind. He carries other burlap bag wrapped around a box of candy, fine chocolates, fancy chocolates with variegated interiors. Gently he takes big old shawl from wall nail and lays this over her. He stands by big old bed and looks down at snoring man.

“Pool devil,” he says. “Ain’t fair to forget him.” He takes knife from pocket, fine knife, seven-bladed knife, and lays this on blanket on bed. He picks up gloves and blows out lantern, and swift as sliding moon shadow he is gone.

High-up frosty clouds scuttle across face of moon. Wind whips through topmost tips of tall pines. What is it that hurtles like hurricane far down there on upslope of last low ridge, scattering drifts, smashing through brush, snorting defiance at distance? It is flop-eared, ewe-necked, cat-hipped roan, iron-boned and dynamite-fueled, ramming full gallop through dark of night.

Firm in saddle is Stubby Pringle, spurs a-jingle, toes a-tingle, out on prowl, ready to howl, heading for dance at the schoolhouse in the valley. He is 10 feet tall, great as grizzly, and roan is a giant, with wings, soaring upward in 30-foot leaps.

They top out and roan rears high, pawing stars out of sky, and drops down, cat-hips hunched for fresh leap out and down.

Hold it, Stubby. Hold hard on reins. Do you see what is happening out there in the valley?

Tiny lights that are schoolhouse windows are winking out. Tiny dark shapes moving around are horsemen riding off, wagons pulling away.

Moon is dropping down the sky, haloed in frosty mist. Dark gray clouds dip and swoop around sweep of horizon. Cold winds weave rustling through ice-coated bushes and trees. What is that moving slow and lonesome up snow-covered mountainside? It is flop-eared, ewe-necked, cat-hipped roan, just that, nothing more, small cow pony, worn and weary, taking its rider back to clammy bunk in cold line cabin. Slumped in saddle is Stubby Pringle, head down, shoulders sagged. He is just another of far-scattered, poorly paid, patched-clothes cowhands who inhabit these parts. Just that. And something more. He is the biggest thing there is in the whole wide roster of the human race. He is a man who has given of himself, of what little he has and is, to bring smiles and joy of living to others along his way.

He jogs along, slump-sagged in saddle, thinking of none of this. He is thinking of dances undanced, of floorboards unstomped, of willing partners left unwhirled.

He jogs along, half-asleep in saddle, and he is thinking now of bygone Christmas seasons and a boy born to poverty and hard work and make-do, poring in flicker of fire-light over ragged old Christmas picture book. And suddenly he hears something. The tinkle of sleigh bells.

Sleigh bells?

Yes. I am telling this straight. He and roan are weaving through thick-clumped brush. Winds are sighing high overhead and on up mountainside and lower down here they are whipping mists and snow flurries all around him.

He can see nothing in mystic-moving dimness. But he can hear. The tinkle of sleigh bells, faint but clear. Ghostly but unmistakable. And suddenly he sees something. Movement off to the left. Swift as wind, glimmers only through brush and mist and whirling snow, but unmistakable again. Antlered heads high, frosty breath streaming, bodies rushing swift and silent, floating in flash movement past, seeming to leap in air alone, needing no touch of ground beneath. Reindeer? Yes. Reindeer strong and silent and fleet out of some far frozen northland marked on no map. Reindeer swooping down and leaping past and rising again and away, strong and effortless and fleeting. And with them, almost lost in swirling snow mist of their passing, vague and formless but there, something big and bulky with runners like sleigh and flash of white beard whipping in wind and crack of long whip snapping.

Startled roan has seen something too. It stands rigid, head up, staring left and forward. Stubby Pringle, body a-tingle, stares too. Out of dark of night ahead, mingles with moan of wind, comes long-drawn chuckle, deep deep chuckle, jolly and cheery and full of smiles and joy of living. And with it longdrawn words.

“W-e-l-l do-o-o-ne, pa-a-a-art-ner!”

Stubby Pringle shakes his head. He brushes icicles from his nose.

“An’ I only had coffee to drink,” he says. “Can’t count that. Reckon I’m getting soft in the head.”

But he is cowhand through and through, cowhand to the marrow. He can’t ride on without stopping to check anything strange on his range. He swings down and leads off to the left. He fumbles in jacket pocket and finds match. Strikes it. Holds it cupped and bends down. There they are. Unmistakable. Reindeer tracks.

Stubby Pringle swings into saddle. Roan needs no slap of spurs to unleash strength in upward surge, up, up steep mountainside. It knows. There in saddle is Stubby Pringle, moonstruck maverick of the Triple X, all-around, hard-proved, hard-honed cowhand, 10-feet tall, needing horse gigantic, with wings, iron-boned and dynamite-fueled, to take him home to a few winks of sleep before another day’s hard work begins.

Stubby Pringle slips into cold clammy bunk. He wriggles vigorously to warm blanket under and blanket over.

“Was it worth all that riding?” comes voice of old Jake Hanlon from other bunk on other wall.

“Why sure,” says Stubby. “I had me a right good time.”

All right, now say anything you want, I know, you know, any dong-bonged, ding-blasted, dang-blatted fool ought to know that icicles breaking off branches can sound to drowsy ears something like sleigh bells. That blurry eyes half-asleep can see strange things. That deer and elk make tracks like those of reindeer. That wind sighing and soughing and moaning and maundering down mountains and through piney treetops can sound like someone shaping words. But we could talk and talk, and it would mean nothing to Stubby Pringle.

Stubby is wiser than we are. He knows, he will always know, who it was, plump and jolly and belly-bouncing, that spoke to him that night on wind-whipped winter-worn mountainside.

“We-l-l do-o-o-ne, pa-a-a-art-ner!”


About the author: Jack Schaefer (1907-1991) is perhaps best known for his novel “Shane,” upon which the great Western movie of the same name was based. A master of the written word, Schaefer also published many short stories, such as this fine yarn, which first appeared in Boys’ Life in December 1963.

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