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'Tis the Gift To Be Simple

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Silver City

On the inside sweat band there’s a small label that says J.B. Stetson. The crown is not too tall, and it’s creased in the middle – so that the hat can be grabbed when it’s windy, Ben guesses. The brim is wide, slightly curled up. Ben fingers it, thinking that a brim like that would really do its job to keep faces and necks from being burned raw, and that the crown could be used as a drinking cup for a man or a horse. As an engineer, he can only praise the functional design, with an additional bit of playful decoration – the snakeskin band at the bottom of the crown. Perfect.

Leaning against the door, an unlit cigar stuck in his mouth, Cudlip is grinning at him. “Go on, try it. Can’t be worse than that thing you were wearin when I first saw you.”

Ben makes a face, puts the hat on, basks for a moment in the warmth of Cudlip’s smile, then takes it off in a slow, sweeping movement and bows deeply: “Tous pour un, un pour tous.”

Cudlip eyes him suspiciously. “And that was …?”

“Something out of a French book. A novel about four special guards who save the Queen of France from a group of villains.” He grins at Cudlip’s bewilderment, looks at him again, smiles slowly. “One of them was younger than you, but was good at getting himself into trouble, and out of it.” He laughs at Cudlip’s scowl. “Now you can open your package.”

 

It’s a square package, beautifully wrapped in dark-green paper, with a bow that vaguely reminds Cudlip of the silk tie he bought with his new suit soon after they made him sheriff. It’s almost a pity to undo the bow and tear the paper, but Ben is looking at him expectantly and a little impatiently, so Cudlip opens it and turns the book around.

On the front cover there’s a picture of a man a little older than Cudlip, with a lot of white hair and a rather unkempt beard. His eyes are gentle, full of light.

Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman,” Cudlip reads out, somewhat doubtfully.

“A very American poet,” Ben says quietly. “Hey – I put a bookmark in it. Try that poem. You may like it.”

Cudlip complies, and reads, slowly and carefully:
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.”

He blinks, re-reads silently, blinks again: “It’s impossible. He couldn’t. He just couldn’t write …”

Ben smiles at him, confident, cheerful. “He could. And he did. Write poems about the manly love of comrades.”

Cudlip nods, returning the smile, then bursts out laughing. “He wrote about it. Come here and let me show you some manly love for comrades.”

 

Tucumcari

A pipe is a companion to sit with while you watch passing people and ponder on passing time. It requires patience and care, it encourages calmness and reflection. You kind of feel at one with it.

This is the third time someone has given Ryan a pipe. In the summer of 1863 Corporal Finnegan made him a pipe out of a corn cob. He and Corporal Ryan were close friends, so Finnegan didn’t mind all the time it took him to make it: he found a corn cob, waited until it was dry, dug out the pit with his knife, and then made a stem by hollowing out and whittling a tree branch. He was blown to bits by a Confederate cannon while they were trying to take a bridge on a no-account river.

Two years later, for the first Christmas after the end of the war, Maureen gave him a cherry-wood pipe. Two flawed people had met by chance, and passion had flared up between them, incomprehensible and all-absorbing. Three months later she left Ryan for a Polish farmer. The following year, before the night at the Meceita Ranch, Ryan heard that she had hanged herself.

“Here. Merry Christmas.” Clumsily wrapped in newspaper, Bill’s presents to him are a packet of tobacco and a black briar Peterson pipe, with a beautifully-curved fishtail stem. Ryan’s breath catches a little as he curls his fingers around its shiny smoothness.

“Where the hell …?”

Bill shrugs. “Asked the storekeeper. He had a catalogue.” He lowers his voice a bit. “Wasn’t sure it’d get here in time.”

Ryan opens the packet of tobacco, gently packs the bowl and tamps the tobacco down with his thumb, then strikes a match and takes the first, shallow puffs. “Thank you.” He looks at Bill through a billowing drift of smoke. There are a number of things he’d like to do and say, but he just jerks his thumb towards the bed: “Your present’s under there.”

 

Of course the blanket was too big and heavy to wrap. It’s at least seven feet long, its horizontal stripes are two shades of grey and three shades of blue, and there’s a long, soft grey fringe at the bottom. Bill looks down at the fringe and twists it around his fingers. It’s one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen.

It’s the first present he has received in about ten years. Before that night, every year at the ranch there was a Christmas tree, with wrapped parcels underneath, and cookies and striped candy. Afterwards, for the first four or five years one or two people remembered him at Christmas-time and gave him useful things, socks or shirts or school readers. Then he grew up. On his own.

He swallows whatever there may be in his throat and looks up. Ryan is looking at him in silence.

“Too good for a saddle blanket,” Bill says, and whatever else he means hangs in the air between them.

“You can hang it on a wall if you want to.”

“No. It gets damn cold at night, we need it on the bed, so’s we don’t freeze to death.” They smile at each other, and the air between them feels warm even before they think of lighting the fire.