Western Short Story
A cowboys' Christmas
Jack Paxton

Western Short Story

Old Pete leaned against the front porch rail of the wooden ranch house. A frown played across his wrinkled face as he gazed at the high mountains before him. The mountains were shrouded in low hanging clouds; a bone chilling wind swept down from the high peaks cloaking the valley with a crisp touch of winter.

Carlos, the ranch foreman, watched the old man’s troubled face. “He will be back soon, Boss.”

Pete turned to Carlos and nodded. “I know he will,” said the old man. “But, it ain’t like Sonny to run late for anything. He should have been back yesterday.”

“This storm just blew in unexpected,” replied Carlos. “It probably caught him off guard and slowed him down.”

Sonny had left several days earlier for the high country to round up a few mustangs that the year-round cowhands could break over the winter. He said he would be back by Christmas Eve at the very latest. Here it was Christmas Eve and no sign of Sonny.

Pete pulled his big hat down farther over his eyes to shield against the wind which was gusting harder as the day went along.

“We’re gonna have snow on the ground before supper,” continued the old man as he looked toward the fog covered mountains again. “Lots of snow.”

Carlos nodded in agreement. He knew the snow was coming; he just prayed it held off long enough for the Doctor to make it to the ranch. His youngest child, Juan, was running a high fever and having trouble breathing. Carlos was putting on a brave face but secretly he was scared. He was afraid for his baby boy; he was afraid the Doctor wouldn’t make it in time. Rooster Bob, one of the cow hands had taken a fast horse and headed into town at breakneck speed and if the snow held off, he would fetch back Doc Martin by late afternoon.

“Carlos, go on back in the house and check on yer boy,” Pete shuddered as a powerful gust of chilling wind swept across the porch.

Carlos went back in the house to the bedroom where his wife leaned over the bed applying a cold washcloth to the forehead of the red-faced young boy. Carlos watched his wife as he listened to the labored breathing of his little boy. Carlos, his wife Rosa and their children, ten-year-old Luisa and one-year-old Juan had been with Pete and Sonny for almost a year. Carlos had started as a ranch hand and worked his way up to foreman. Rosa had taken over running the house; cooking and cleaning for the small crew of cowboys.

“How is he?”

“The same,” Rosas’ voice trembled as she spoke. “No change.” She was worried too.

Carlos looked past Rosa and Juan and out the small window. It was not yet noon and Petes’ prediction came true. The first snowflakes were beginning to fall. Sparse and small at first, then puffy white flakes that became larger and greater in number.

Carlos returned to the front porch where Pete still gazed at the mountains hoping to see a rider far off in the distance with a string of horses in tow. Carlos looked down the road hoping for a sign of the Doctor. Both waited and hoped in silence as the snow became harder and the wind more chilling.

Finally, Pete spoke, “With everything going on I ‘bout lost track of it being Christmas Eve. Tomorrow’s Christmas.”

Carlos nodded, “Me too.”

As another icy gust of wind swirled across the porch the anxious men retreated into the house where Pete tossed another log into the big rock fireplace. Restlessly, he moved to the window and stared at the blowing snow that danced across the windowpane. As he gazed into the whiteness of the countryside, movement far down the road caught his eye.

Somebody’s comin’,” he said excitedly.

Carlos rushed to the window. “Yes, I see them.”

“Can you make it out?”

“It looks like a buggy or a buckboard,” replied Carlos. “Wagon of some kind.”

The men intently watched from the window as the wagon slowly drew closer.

“It’s Charlie Nutts’ buckboard,” said Pete. “I would recognize his team of big sorrel mules anywhere.”

It was next door neighbor Charlie Nutt and his wife Mi Ling in a buckboard pulled by the team of mules plodding through the blowing snow.

Pete, Carlos, and Luisa greeted Charlie and Mi Ling as they reigned the buckboard to a stop in front of the house. Charlie was an older man who had been a top wrangler in his younger days. He had finally been thrown from enough bucking broncs to decide it was time to settle down and find an easier way of life. He bought a ranch which prospered and three years ago had taken a trip to San Francisco and returned with a much younger Chinese bride, Mi Ling.

Mi Ling readily adapted to ranch life and quickly had Charlie learning Chinese customs, as well. They were good neighbors and Mi Ling soon became known as the best pie maker in the county.

Charlie and Mi Ling got down from the buckboard and Charlie shook hands all around, while Mi Ling busily gathered things from the wagon.

“Lawdy, Charlie,” exclaimed Pete. “What in tarnation are you doin’ out in this kinda weather?”

“I met Rooster Bob a high tailin’ it to town to fetch the Doc. He said things was pretty rough right now. So, me and Mi Ling decided that since tomorrow is Christmas, we would get together some fixins’ for Christmas dinner.”

Pete choked up as he spoke, “I don’t hardly know what to say. That’s mighty kind of you and your missus.”

Charlie slapped Pete and Carlos on the back and said, “Mi Ling brought about ten of her best pies, some venison, potatoes and such.”

“Lend Mrs. Nutt a hand with carrying that stuff in the house,” Carlos called to Luisa. “I’ll take care of the mules and wagon.”

The food was carried in, the fire was stoked high and Mi Ling sat in the bedroom with Rosa and the kids. Charlie, Pete and Carlos made small talk and took turns looking out the window for any sign of the Doc.

Finally, in late afternoon, they saw what they were hoping for when Carlos excitedly exclaimed, “I see them!”

Sure enough, it was Rooster Bob and Doc Martin forcing their horses to move at a brisk pace into the force of the driving snow.

Pete and Charlie put away the horses in the barn while Rooster and the Doc thawed out next to the blazing fire. Rooster was a short skinny cowboy with long red hair, and an equally long red beard. He had gotten the name Rooster after a couple of bar fights where everyone said he looked like a banty rooster taking on the big guys in a barnyard battle. Standing straight and wearing his best pair of cowboy boots Rooster still had trouble looking over the top rail of the corral. Except for meals and sleeping he was generally topped off by the biggest Stetson hat in the county.

Doc was a heavy-set man in his late forties. Originally from Germany, he had taken his medical training in England, so his German accent had faded to the point it was barely noticeable. His dark hair was beset with more than a few streaks of gray.

Once thawed out Doc got down to business and tended to Juan. In an hour or so Doc emerged from the bedroom.

“Well, Doc. How is he?” everyone asked at once.

“He’s a pretty sick boy,” replied the Doc, with a worried expression. “Got a bad case of pneumonia. I gave him something to stop the cough. Hopefully, the cold compresses will bring the fever down. But it could go either way right now. If he makes it through the night, he might pull through. We should have a better idea in the morning.”

Soon they were joined by Tobe, the other full-time ranch hand. He was the son of freed slaves who had left Florida and headed West when Tobe was still very young. His Mom and Dad had died in a Malaria out break as they were passing through New Orleans. Tobe was taken in by family friends and raised until he turned fifteen and decided to set out on his own for the West to fulfill his parents dream. He spent a few years drifting from ranch to ranch and job to job before hiring on with Sonny and Pete. Within a few months he had worked his way up from hired hand to top hand. When it came to ropin’, ridin’ and brandin’ Tobe was head and shoulders above everyone else.

The wind howled around the house and across the valley as the men fretfully awaited the return of the long over-due Sonny. As darkness fell the snow continued to rise and the wind whistled even louder.

Everyone sat quietly lost in thought until Pete finally spoke. “If Sonny ain’t back by late mornin’ I’m gonna saddle up old Speed and head out lookin’ for him. We got plenty of help to take care of the boy, now.”

Everyone nodded their agreement as they knew Pete was determined to set out to find his partner. Soon, most were nodding off, when Pete sat up straight and looked around. “Did y’all hear somethin’?”

“Probably just the wind,” yawned Charlie.

“I heard it again,” Pete learned forward. “Rooster, check the porch.”

Rooster Bob got up from the chair and went to the front door and opened it a crack to look out. He jumped back from the door and exclaimed, “Holy bejeezus!”

The men jumped to their feet in surprise and rushed to the door.

Rooster opened the door wide and exclaimed, “It’s an Indian!”

“I need help,” said the Indian, who had a red and white blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He was snow-covered and obviously freezing. “My wife is having a baby soon and the man, Sonny, has a broken leg.”

“Where they at?” asked Pete as everyone grabbed their coats.

“Back that way not far,” the Indian pointed back toward the mountain. “They couldn’t go any farther, so I had to leave them and come for help.”

The men quickly hitched up Charlie Nutts’ buckboard to the big sorrel mules and off they went following the guidance of the tall Indian. As they forced their way through snowdrifts and blowing wind the Indian explained he was Peta of the Blackfoot tribe and his wife was Haiwee of the Shoshones. They had married outside their tribe and were not welcomed by their families. Haiwee was expecting a baby so they decided that with the storm barreling toward the mountains it would be best if they came to the valley for help.

As they made their way down the mountain, they found a man named Sonny setting under a tree. The man had broken his leg when his horse had fallen in the snow.

They became lost in swirling snow and were unsure of which way to go when somehow through the snow they were able to see a light in the distance far down in the valley. Sonny had said that was the ranch and the light would be their guide to lead them home. As they followed the light, the three weary travelers helped each other slowly make their way down the mountain through the fury of the storm until they could go no farther. Peta set out on his own for help.

The rescue party found Haiwee and Sonny wrapped in blankets sheltered from the blowing snow behind a large tree.

“This girl’s gonna have a baby any minute now!” yelled Doc over the howling wind. “Get her and Sonny into the wagon and back to the ranch as quick as we can.”

A big smile spread across Pete’s face as they gingerly loaded Sonny into the wagon.

“You was a little late a gittin’ back,” chuckled the old man. “But I knew you never missed Christmas.”

“Pete, seeing that light was a miracle,” said Sonny. “I don’t know how we were able to see it. The storm would break for just a few seconds every so often and we could see the light. It was our guide. We wouldn’t have made it without that light.”

Once back at the ranch the first order of business was to deliver the baby that had decided that a snowstorm was as good a time as any to make an arrival. Mi Ling proved to be a big help as she assisted Doc Martin in the delivery. Once the healthy baby girl had made her appearance early Christmas morning, they moved on to setting Sonny’s broken leg.

Sonny was mindful of children and ladies present and didn’t yell the words he wanted to scream during the ordeal.

As darkness gave way to morning the raging storm was spent, replaced by a white tranquility that blanketed the countryside.

Several times during the long night Doc had checked on Juan. As morning light crept over the distant mountains Doc Martin emerged from the bedroom where Juan lay sleeping and smiled a broad, happy smile. “His fever has broken. He’s gonna be fine.”

Doc slumped into a big chair near the fireplace, weary from his long nights work.

“Doc,” said Pete. “ You done put in a pretty fair night’s work; delivered a baby, set a broken leg, and pulled a boy through the pneumonia.”

Doc smiled and nodded, “Yes, I’m hopin’ to get paid with more than just a chicken this time.”

As noon approached, Mi Ling, Charlie, and Luisa scurried around the kitchen preparing a Christmas dinner of venison, squirrel, and a variety of potatoes; baked, fried and smashed. All to be smothered with a generous helping of gravy. Cornbread, biscuits and Rosa’s canned green beans added to the mix. Doc Martins newly acquired chicken was fried up nice and crispy too.

As everyone gathered around the table for the big Christmas meal, Pete became solemn and spoke softly, “Yesterday, everything looked mighty bleak, but this has turned out to be a fine Christmas. Let’s all give thanks for our blessings and remember what this day is all about.” In their own way each gave thanks and counted their blessings for a joyous, happy day; truly a day of miracles.

After dinner everyone sat around the fireplace, sipping coffee and sampling a variety of Mi Lings pies. As Pete glanced out the window, he noticed the overcast sky had been supplanted by bright rays of sunshine rolling back the gray and gloom. White snow-covered countryside glistened in the sun.

Pete leaned back in his chair, relaxed, and closed his eyes. He listened to the soft cry of a new-born baby, a laugh from a once deathly ill child, a chuckle from a man who just hours earlier had been at nature’s mercy. Small talk, laughter and merriment from the group of friends filled the room.

“This is truly a very blessed Christmas,” smiled Pete.