Christmas Montana, 1997
Rain soaked everything. This time of year the ground should be covered with snow, but instead it was 35 degrees and raining. I lay in my cot and listened to the steady drizzle. At times it picked up and sounded more like a Texas downpour, but then it would slack off again into a barely audible cat-like whisper. Everyone blamed the El Nino. Me, I just figured it was bad hunting luck, anyway I was getting damn tired of it.
I rolled over and tried to find a comfortable spot, tangling my feet in the end of my sleeping bag in the process. The dampness in the air was making my bones hurt. I tucked my arthritic hand under my arm and laid on top of it, then I pulled my head beneath the mannte tarp and tried to doze off again. Dreams of Texas and folks I'd left behind haunted me several hours, and then with a jolt I came full awake.
I reached for my flashlight and shined where I'd left my pocketwatch, midnight straight up.
I swung my feet out onto the floormat, and started reaching for my clothes. As I stood, I accounted for the sleep of my roommates in the crew tent. Greg was snoring like an old polar bear, and Justin was laying straight and stiff with his mouth hanging open and an expression on his face as if he were asking someone a question. Joe was obviously sound asleep, the camp cat was in bed with him and no man that was awake would have let that cat park its ass where it was. My fingers were cracked and raw, and it took me awhile to get my boots laced and get my courage up to go out in the rain.
Grandma always said, "a chicken ain't got a head but this big and it knows to come in out of the rain."
Well, that excuse wasn't going to work. I was on a mission, and in a way I was looking forward to it. Seemed like the first spontaneous fun thing I'd done in a while.
I stepped quietly out of the tent and walked right into Jim Tyrrell, the camp cook. He stood there looking up at the sky with his hands in his pockets.
Then without asking me where I was going he smiled and said, " I got that Easy horse saddled for you, he sure is hard to get a bit in his mouth. Check your cinch I just snugged it a little. Watch them, slick trails in the dark." His voice was even and reassuring, then he turned to go to-'his tent.
In a low voice I called my thanks to his disappearing back.
"Sure, see you in the morning," he said.
For a moment I waited and watched appreciatively after him, wondering how he knew what I was up to. It was an odd quirk from what I was used to normally doing by myself. Then I shuffled my feet through the mud across camp trying to avoid failing down, making too much noise, and spooking my tied horse. All the while not being able to see more than a few feet in front of me.
Easy waited patiently and gave me a friendly nuzzle as I tightened the cinch a hole, and put on my chaps. With some effort I swung up into the saddle, then we moved off from the hitch rail and trotted into the dark night.
The trail along Crystal Ridge was a lot drier than the trail through the horse pa ture, so I aimed my pony behind the Forest Service cabin and trusted him to follow the dim route. He stepped out at a strong walk as if he knew where we were going, and he wanted to get there too. In holes through the clouds I could see stars. To the north it seemed to be clearer, but to the south the clouds were thick and rolling. The moon must have been penetrating a little light, because I could see fairly well once my eyes got used to the dark. A light rain sprinkled continuously, but the cool wetness on my face felt good. I tried to watch the stars, but the moving clouds prevented me from seeing any one spot for too long. Crystal Ridge was shrouded in fog, and I couldn't see the top of it. This sure in hell was some odd weather this year.
Nevertheless; I felt good. My aches were soon forgotten as I enjoyed the night ride. Easy faithfully stayed to the trail, and only turned his head to look at the mule deer does that were looking at us as we passed 10 feet from them. I liked riding the big buckskin. He wasn't the smartest horse I'd ever set on, but he was willing to learn. The pony and I had become buddies.
We followed the lightly used dry trail to the north end of Crystal Ridge, and then hung a left and began climbing up the main trail to the top. I spent my attention trying to peer south, down the length of the ridge, ducking my head in an effort to see beneath the fog that we were walking up into. Suddenly we both stopped; naturally I had to stop if my horse stopped. Easy stood with his head up and his ears perked. It felt as if I'd just stuck my head in a freezer. We stood there silently, I reached for my gloves as frost began to grow in my mustache and I felt a chill run down my arms. Then I goaded Easy lightly in the ribs and encouraged him forward. Ice crystals hung in the air, and the visibility got worse even though everything around us was brighter. The air was so thick I felt that I could bite it like a snowcone. Icicles began to hang from the hair growing out of my horses ears, and the last 75 yards to the top was getting deep with a silent powdery snow.
Cresting the edge and stepping onto the top was like coming out of a cold swimming pool. I could see, it was clear as a bell on top. Every star in the sky was visible. The icy fog bank hung beneath the top edge of the ridge, making it impossible to see down. The fresh snow puffed in front of my horses legs and gave me a good feeling as we turned and headed south. The starlight fascinated me, every star in Orion was visible. I studied every detail of the constellation, and momentarily got lost riding along looking up with my mouth hanging open like some kind of dummy. A brilliant flash caught the corner of my eye as a falling star entered the atmosphere and flamed for a full second. I was still dazed by my surroundings, and felt that I had entered a place too magnificent for human occupation. The snow sparkled and millions of frozen water droplets each contributed their reflected light. The top of the ridge was coated by a soft blanket of white moon-glowing beauty.
Finally, I came to my senses a little and studied the scene in front of me, as I rode into it. The snow was untouched for the first hundred yards, and then a herd of deer seemed to have fallen from the sky and churned up a trail for about 100 yards. On either side of the deer tracks was the cut of a set of sled runners. I kept riding and looking. At the end of the tracks set the abandoned sleigh. The harnesses and traces were piled behind the drivers seat. A few yards to the left fresh coffee was starting to boil over a fire. To the right the reindeer pawed and played, jumping and kicking and shaking their antlers at each other. My pony increased his pace and went straight to the deer. The deer clustered into a small herd and came towards him, meeting us half way from where we had first noticed each other. Easy stopped and stretched his neck out to the buggers and they all did likewise. They touched noses and began snuffling. The horse never showed the least sign of fear or aggressiveness, and neither did the reindeer. It was like a reunion of little kids on a playground after a holiday.
I saw my old friend fussing over the fire, so I stepped down and stripped the bridle and halter off my horse, hoping he would go graze and not roll with my saddle on. The snow was not quite knee-deep. The crispness of the air and the excitement of seeing my old buddy had my heart pumping as I fairly ran high-stepping to the fire. I raised my hand and began to call my greeting.
" Hey, what's been going on? You been doing alriiiiiipe?!!"
Something shot up the back of my coat and caught me by the belt. Too fast to react, I was jerked off the ground and tossed face-first into the powdery snow, being practically buried. Before I could move to get up, I felt something step on the back of my leg. I knew what it was.
Santa was having laughing fits. He was holding himself and tears were making the travel over his round rolling cheeks and dripping off his chin. His eyes squeezed shut, he squatted and duck walked in circles holding his belly and not controlling his damned ho-ho-ho-ing.
I slowly pushed myself up and rolled over at the same time. I got to my feet and tried to brush myself off. It looked like I'd dove into a wedding cake. I picked my South-Texas sombrero out of the wallow I'd made, and eyed the culprit that had hooked me from behind. Dancer shook his head and stuck his nose out to me. I petted it, and he took a couple of steps closer so he could nibble at my pockets.
"Wait just a darn minute, dad-gummit ya'll are spoiled on them horse cookies."
I un-did my outside coat and got a handful of pellets from the coat pocket underneath. This action brought the rest of the moochers over as well as my horse. There wasn't anything to do but give everybody a pat and a few cookies. Santa was leaning on his sleigh, and he was coughing from laughing too hard. Some of the deer came right up and demanded their treats, but Blitzen and Comet were almost shy. They only let me pet them on the front of their heads. When I tried to reach closer they shook their heads and backed away. Finally the remuda seemed satisfied, and began to graze away from me.
Santa now had control and joined me as I walked to the fire.
"Son, it sure is entertaining to watch some of the stuff that happens to you, an ordinary man would be dead by now."
We shook hands, and I squatted to pour myself a cup of coffee.
"You got anything to put in this coffee to warm up my soul?"
"Hang on just a minute," he trotted over to his sleigh and came back with a full bottle of Canadian whiskey. He watched as I broke the seal and made myself a cup of cold medicine.
"How's your year been son, you been naughty or nice?"
I stood up and A eyed the old bird as his demeanor became more serious, and he studied me from beneath heavy brows.
"Oh... I suppose it all depends on what your idea of naughty and nice are.
You know, I can't really think of too many mean things I done this year. Of course you know how that works; most everything I do , I do on purpose." I sipped my drink and looked squarely and openly at the old man.
Santa rubbed his hands over the fire and muttered something about hardheads. " How'd your year go with Sam?"
My defenses dropped and I softened up. "It was pretty great. We went to Norway and met some of her kinfolks. You know how I like to travel, well... it's just that much better with her along. Me and her went to San Antone and did a bunch of stuff this year. I took her up in the Tower of the Americas for supper, and she asked me why I liked to go out to eat. I told her that it wasn't just going out to eat that was important, but that you had to be sitting across from a pretty girl when you did it. Boy.. you should have seen how she growed a couple of inches right there. Of course she scared the hell out of me, with all that arm breaking business she was doing, but I guess if we're careful she'll be O.K. She's really growing, its going to be harder and harder to leave her behind and come up here. You know I about half-way expected to run into you in them smooth hills over in Norway."
" Nope , them trolls and my elves don't get along. The country wouldn't have survived. How's your buddy Rusty doing?"
" Well.. so far as I can tell he's sliding along getting by alright. You know he lost his Dad, and outside of me I reckon his Dad was probably his best friend. As bad as things have gone around my place in the past, I guess the real tragedies we have to live through are when somebody we love passes away. Rusty's got some neat boys to keep him going, and we'll always remember the tracks His Dad made in our lives. I think we'll both have plenty of times that we're going to miss him."
I stirred the fire and added another stump, pretty soon I had a real white-man's fire going. Then I mixed myself a drink with whiskey and snow.
"Hey, by the way, I got a few questions of my own. How'd you get this snow up here, and how come Jim knew where I was going tonight ?"
The old rascal grinned at me, " Your questions are easy. It just all goes back to that old Christmas magic. After that beating I took landing in that Texas brush-pile last year, I decided not to take any chances. So, I ordered me up a batch of snow to land in. As far as Jim is concerned, that's part your fault. You've told everybody that you meet me up here, Jim just happens to believe that most folks got something good in them... somewhere. He also wanted to believe that maybe you really did meet me up here, in an instance like that the Christmas magic has to work. Now it's my turn to ask a question. How's the writing going?"
I sloshed my cup and thought about my answer. "You know, I'm worried that I'm about as good a writer as I was a bronc-rider. Just decent enough that everybody tells me how good I am, but not actually good enough to ever make a living at it. I'm old enough now to have doubts about myself."
My pal wobbled his head and bit his upper lip with his bottom teeth. Then he looked down at the ground and kicked his foot into the snow a couple of times. Then he looked up and straight back at me. "That's right, you're old, you've made it to 40 despite yourself. You about ready to quit ? No more broncs, if something starts getting tough, find a way around it instead of taking a-hold."
I glared at him, " You go suck eggs. I never said I was through riding broncs, and you know damn well if being old means anything it's just that I'm set in my ways.
"I don't intend on handling this writing stuff any different than I did anything else. I just hope it doesn't turn into work the way every other damn thing I like to do has."
Santa chuckled softly and swayed before the fire smiling. " Yeah, I guess it's bad when something you once loved to do for excitement turns into a job."
He turned around and looked at his reindeer. " Come on son help me hook up, it's about time for me to go."
I wasn't much help, but I did what he told me. After the deer were harnessed, we caught my pony, and I stood beside the sleigh as he prepared to take off.
He gathered his reins and smiled at me. " Son you ain't doing so awful bad. A man is measured by how many friends he got... well I think you're doing O.K. Take care of Sam and give her a hug for me. Here take the rest of this whiskey and share it with the boys in camp. Where we going to meet next year ?"
I grinned, " How about a nudist beach in Mexico ?"
"Son you ain't no good," he grinned back at me, " I got to go."
He let out a whistle between his teeth and the sleigh took off with a lurch. The reindeer gathered speed, and then lifted from the ground. He circled once and waved as the sleigh bells jangled merrily, lifting my heart and also bringing choking tears to my eyes. I wished I was going with him. Then he was gone.
I walked over and kicked snow on the fire. I noticed in surprise that the snow was already beginning to melt, and that clouds were beginning to drift in overhead. By morning the only thing on top of this ridge was going to be more mud.
Easy took me back down the dry trail to camp, and I gave him an extra charge of alfalfa and some more horse cookies. I stumbled back into the crew tent and wearily began unlacing my boots. Everything seemed to be the way I had left it. Then in one sudden motion Justin sat bolt upright in bed. "Did I hear bells ?"
I looked at him seriously, " Yeah you heard bells, but I checked on them and they're alright."
He sat there for a second and then laid back, " OK, I thought I heard something."
In a moment he was asleep again. I wrestled my way back into my sleeping bag, and then shined my flashlight on my pocketwatch. It showed straight up midnight. I looked over at Justin and wondered at his being awake. " This Christmas magic must be catching. Next year we'll have the whole camp riding up that ridge. People will know for sure we're crazy then." I pulled my head under the mannte tarp and in no time at all I was sleeping hard.
The Lost Rider of Yaupon Creek