Tall in the saddle, we spend Christmas Day, driving the cattle on the snow covered-plains.
All of the good gifts given today, ours is the sky and the wide open range.
Hannibal Heyes drove his weary horse through the lowing, complaining cows on their way to Denver and the stock yard. The steam from his horse’s nostrils and mouth blocked his view for a moment as the horse pulled against the reins and stomped in the three feet of snow covering the rocky plain.
“Easy there, boy.” Heyes patted his horse with his hands that were warm and snug in the sheepskin gloves Curry had given him when they started the drive. “I know you’ll be wantin’ to get on back to your warm friends and oats. But you know I told you I gotta keep an eye on Jedediah.” Heyes sighed. “I think he’s feelin’ poorly.”
When Heyes and Kid Curry took the traditional jobs of cowboys for a rich Denver rancher they were promised a civilized and warm Christmas enjoying the many fruits of the season the city had to offer. November was a bad time for a drive in most years, but the fall was mild and bright with colored leaves and fields filled with sunflowers and pumpkins. Mr. Tate. from Denver decided he wanted a small herd of his cattle sold by Christmas and sent out the call for cowboys. Good pay and no questions asked suited Heyes just right. Kid Curry went along, after some persuasion, because of the promise of a very merry Christmas in Denver.
The snow started on November sixteenth and they had a blizzard for Thanksgiving. Heyes and Curry kept to themselves and had found a small indent in the side of a sheer cliffside. They built a fire and talked all night about good food and good people from their shared past while trying to enjoy a meal of buffalo jerky and coffee. They were never more grateful for each other’s company as they shared a bedroll and listened to the howling wind as she mockingly called their names trying to lure them into her frosty arms. They held on to each other and spoke of Christmas in the big city. But cold weather and blinding snow had made them at least two weeks behind schedule, if not more.
Back in the city they have different ways, silver bells and eggnog and Christmas parades.
I'll take the blanket, I'll take the reins, Christmas for cowboys and wide-open plains.
Heyes approached the other three cowboys and the crew boss, known only as Boss, who were gathered discussing where to camp for the night. They were a good natured bunch, if wary of each other, each with their own secrets to keep. This made them helpful and polite to Heyes and Curry but not overly friendly and certainly not talkative. Heyes liked that just fine too.
“Fellas? You seen Thaddeus around?” The three cowboys shook their heads and muttered.
Boss spoke for them all. “I seen him about an hour ago, Joshua, when I told him we’re makin’ camp a little early to have us a little Christmas eve party. We ain’t gonna make Denver, no way, no how. But I stashed some good whiskey in my pack and the fellas are gonna all add what they can. He seemed right chipper over that. Maybe he’s a lookin’ for Santa’s reindeer.”
“Hell, I hope he finds it. Some roasted reindeer meat sounds tasty right about now Santa won’t mind. He’s got plenty,” said Clem. He was a handsome joker, but somehow the laughter never reached his eyes.
The crew chuckled a little at that and another of the three, Curly, a bald headed man with a horrible scar on his cheek that made you want to look away when he spoke, tried to ease Heyes' growing concern.
“Clem might not be too far off. I saw him walkin’ his horse lookin’ at tracks or somethin’ on the ground. Maybe he was gonna bag us somethin’ nice for Christmas.”
The third cowboy, a tall, dark, hulk of a man called simply, Joe, spoke in a deep voice that sent shivers down Heyes spine.
“I noticed he weren’t lookin’ too good this mornin’. He ain’t prone to fever is he? Fever’s bad in this weather.”
Heyes’ horse neighed and pranced having had enough of standing in one place in the freezing air. “Thank you, boys. I’ll just go round him up and we’ll be happy to help set up camp and make some merry.” Heyes smiled to hide how much Joe’s words had spooked him.
Heyes urged his horse into a trot. He wanted to gallop to where Curry was last seen, but had to restrain himself to protect his horse from damaging his hooves on the icy, uneven ground. Not soon enough he came to the the stand of trees where Curry had dismounted. A few feet away, sheltered by several big jack pines was Curry’s horse, tied loosely to a tree branch, snorting and pawing the snow, obviously glad to see a friend. Heyes dismounted and tied his horse next to Curry’s, allowing them to nuzzle each other for warmth. He followed Curry’s boot prints in the snow, where he noticed another set of deer tracks that lead into the woody, slightly inclined area. Heyes breathed in the scent of fresh, frozen pine needles. If he wasn’t so worried, he would have enjoyed the pristine beauty of the pines and snow. A perfect Christmas scene, missing only one thing to make it perfect for Hannibal Heyes and that would be Kid Curry.
Heyes started to run as best he could in the deep snow, calling his friend’s real name.
“Jedediah! Jed! Jed!”
Heyes stopped, panting and fighting his emotions. The boot prints ended abruptly and Heyes became frantic till he spotted something in the snow. It was Curry, silent as the frozen landscape.
“Jed. God, Jed, no!”
Heyes scooped his partner into his arms and began to check him for injury. Curry was shaking with cold, but burning up with fever.
“Jedediah? Wake up, partner. We need to get you in front of a fire.”
Curry opened his eyes at Heyes prompting. “Hannibal? Are we in Denver yet? Is it Christmas?”
“No, buddy. Not yet. Now would I let you spend Christmas out here in the snow? Even baby Jesus had a manger to sleep in.”
Curry nodded, seeing the sense in that as Heyes rubbed his arms and tried to warm him. “Can you stand up if I help you, Jed?” Curry nodded again. As Heyes got in position to pull Curry to his feet he asked, “What were you doin’ out here, if you were feelin’ poorly? Why didn’t you come get me?”
Heyes pulled Curry to his feet and steadied him. He slung his arm around Curry’s waist and grabbed his other hand to move Curry’s arm over his shoulder. Heyes pulled him close and guided him back to the horses.
“I wanted to get you a Christmas present. I was going to get you something in Denver with my pay packet. So I saw this buck, a five pointer and thought maybe I could give it to the fellas and save the hide to make you something warm to wear.”
Heyes stopped moving and looked at his friend. “You fool! Do you really think I need a Christmas present from you? You are always there, Jed. Always by my side, every day of the year. You live with me. You’d die for me. You give me a present everyday just by smilin’ at me over the coffee and sayin’ good mornin’ like you mean, I’m never gonna leave you, Hannibal. Never gonna leave.”
Curry answered weakly. “I...I’m sorry. Hannibal. I… I didn’t… I don’t feel so good, buddy… and… I love you too.” Curry slumped in Heyes arms, just as Curly and Joe came into sight.
A campfire for warmth as we stop for the night, the stars overhead are Christmas tree lights.
Heyes was content as he watched Curry’s healing sleep. He had never in his life been so grateful to anyone as he was to the cowboys around him.
Curly and Joe had helped to sling Curry over Heyes’ horse and get him back to the roaring fire Boss had started. The horses were tended to. The cattle gathered around the hay wagon turned sleigh, munching on the sweet remains of the summer fields.
Heyes was reminded of the three wise men as the three cowboys brought forth offerings to their ill comrade.
Clem gave up the buffalo hide he used as a robe to warm him and his horse on the coldest days. He spread the hide over Curry and snuggled in himself. “Come on, Joshua, You get as close as you can on his right side. I’ll take the left and we’ll have him toasty in no time. Be snug as a buffalo bug. That’s it. Closer now. Ain’t no time to be shy.”
Curly gathered the meager offerings of everyone’s food rations and fashioned a stew and biscuits that was hearty and delicious. He woke Curry up and patiently spooned the thick broth into his mouth to warm his belly all the while cooing soothing words like Curry was his own feverish little boy. Curry talked in his fever to people only he could see and not one of the cowboys asked why Joshua was suddenly being called Hannibal. Heyes knew they were in safe company.
Joe knew about herbal lore and had medicinal herbs in his saddlebags to cool Curry’s fevered brow. “He’s a lucky man, Joshua. Seems the herbs caught the fever before it could take a firm hold on ‘im. Ain’t seen it work so fast before. Fever should break before the dawn. Might have yourselves a happy Christmas after all.” Joe stared at Curry and shook his head. “You two got some special mojo.”
Boss tended the fire and watched over his boys. He rationed the whiskey, but kept it coming, till everyone was warm and feeling no pain, but not drunk enough to wander off and get themselves in trouble. At midnight he gave everyone a piece of peppermint candy that he was saving for his favorite girl in Denver. He would tell his little girl that her present made some sad and sick cowboys merry on a cold, cold night. He knew his good girl would be glad to have helped and give him a precious gift of a smile.
When Boss and Curly bedded down for the night, Boss making sure the fire wouldn’t go out. Curly started to sing, “Silent Night.” Clem and Heyes joined in. Curry stirred and smiled in his sleep as Heyes crooned softly in his ear.
The wind sings a hymn as we bow down to pray, Christmas for cowboys and wide-open plains.
Heyes dozed on and off during the night. He held tight to Curry as he grew less hot and finally the fever broke. Curry mumbled and snored in his sleep. He reached over and latched onto Heyes’ coat to pull him even closer.
Heyes chuckled and ran his fingers through Curry’s hair, smoothing it and enjoying the feel of life in it. He placed a kiss on his now cool brow and looked to the heavens. The midnight blue sky was bright with stars and the crescent snow moon was hung from one corner. Mountains loomed like sleeping giants in the distance. He silently sent a prayer of thanksgiving for his partner’s life and the cowboys who helped him save the most precious blessing he had.
When the Christmas dawn creeped over the mountains, Heyes opened one eye to see two blue ones looking up at him and smiling. “Merry Christmas, Joshua.”
“Merry Christmas, Thaddeus.”
Tall in the saddle we spend Christmas Day, driving the cattle on the snow-covered plains.
So many gifts have been opened today, ours is the sky and the wide open range.
It's Christmas for cowboys and wide open plains.