A coughing fit wracked me out of a Nyquil induced sleep. It seemed to last forever and I couldn't force myself to quit. The sleeping bag was entwined around my legs and my movements were partially restricted until I gave a good kick and got it straightened out. Sometime during the night I had already flipped the mante tarp off my bed. The air in the tent was freezing cold but I was burning up and sweating. Keeping my head out of the bag and snoring in the dark air had stirred the film in my chest. Finally, I got myself under control and lay listening to the sounds of the night and the tent.
I was in different country and the jury was still out on what I thought of it. There were elk here. Maybe not as many as the locals thought there should be, but there were elk here. This country was just high enough not to enjoy the mild weather of the valley that Bozeman hid in, but low enough to provide winter range for the bulls that found living too hot on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch. Maybe that's what I found disconcerting about this place, there were property markers and NO HUNTING signs everywhere. A road ran on top of the ridge adjacent to the main camp, and trails and short-cut trails had needed to be learned like so many pasture senderos. There was too much sign of man. Why were there more elk here than in the Wilderness where I had been before?
My cold was bad. The sinus headaches, loss of appetite and constant hacking were whittling me down. I had never been this sick in camp before.
Just then, Bob let out a wheezing sort of a crying snore that sounded like a big water crane squawking right before flight. I pulled myself around and tried to took at him through the darkness. We had been cutting a supply of firewood for next year and taking down the 'Glacier' hunting camp. Everybody else was at the main camp. Bob had just come to work for us at the end of the year. At first, my suspicions and prejudices were tickled. My first wife ran off with a guy named Bob, and I think my second wife dated a guy named Bob. Now I naturally try to keep my back to a wall whenever I'm standing near anybody with that name.
As it turned out, Bob was great. He was in his early sixties and was an old cowboy that had spent a stint working as a Deputy Sheriff in Gallatin County. He was fun to talk to and good to work with. I found myself using words and phrases and talking in a manner that I hadn't used since I managed the Brahman ranch in Columbus. That had been in 78. That was when I had to keep McCandless and Harvey Lee on speaking relations. My boss-against-my idol, durn near came to shooting terms. I was young and I had fairly glowed whenever in the presence of such men. They seemed mighty hard, and I'm not sure they looked at their differences honestly, but they honestly weren't afraid to fight. In the end they had remained good neighbors, and had a backhanded respect for each other. Now somehow, Bob had awakened some of those old memories and I loved it. We were friends as soon as we met.
His odd brand of snoring was reassuring and made me smile despite the dull feeling in my head.
Then I remembered, I reached for the flashlight on the stump beside my bed and shined on my pocketwatch that was propped against some dry socks on the same stump Midnight.
It was like lifting a bomb to get my head off my coats that I used for a pillow. I my small flashlight in my teeth and as quietly as I could, pulled on my wool pants. Then barefooted, I slipped into my deck shoes that served as teepee creepers. The fire in the stove still had some coals, so I put in a stick of wood with a good knot. Bob stirred and for a moment I thought he was awake, but then he let out a whistle and a sigh and settled back into a comatose sleep. My head was fixing to blow up and I hurriedly un-did the bindings on the tent flap and ducked outside.
It was snowing big fluffy flakes on top of the foot of snow that was already on the ground. I stood bent over for long minutes trying to relieve my head and chest of the congestive mucous that was choking me. I coughed and spit until I was retching and on the verge of nausea. Slowly, I recovered and wiped my face with the same kerchief that I used for a hotpad. One thing about this particular cold, once I cleared my head it would stay clear for awhile. I cocked my head back and let the moist flakes land and melt on my face. The sky had an eerie glow. The snow clouds were only a thin layer and the growing moon was trying to shine through. The small opening that camp set in was cast with the same odd greenish-white light that color blind people see when a stop-light turns to go.
I stood there feeling my body temperature cool, and yet my head reeled from the balance- stealing effect of the sickness. I closed my eyes and for a few moments felt better. Snow landed in my hair and melted, but clung to my clothes and began piling on my shoulders. Then I heard the bells. For a few more moments I stood there -smiling- my head thrown back and my eyes closed. My chin tightened and I had to wipe away a tear as I lowered my head and looked north, towards the end of the opening.
The bells became louder and more intense, I'd never heard them jangle so hard. Then suddenly the sky-chariot rocketed low over the trees. It made one pass and came around again, slowing as it did so. I shuffled in a circle watching it and saw lanterns hanging from poles on all four comers. I also noticed that this was a bigger rig than the one he usually drove. This was a sedan, whereas his normal buggy was a sports model. I could also see he had more folks with him.
The sleigh landed delicately and perfectly at the end of the opening and came sliding straight towards me. I looked through the eight-hitch team and could see my old buddy's face, grinning and radiant as he handled the reins.
"Ho-Ho, Whoa boys, let's not stampede over top of that durn Texan."
It eased to a stop right where-the leaders could nuzzle my shirt pockets looking for a hand-out. I brought out a pouch of chewing tobacco and worked my way back along the lovable mooches giving each a generous mouthful, and trying to avoid their horns
For the most part, I could feel the passengers sitting on their haunches and glaring at me like I was some kind of unusual being myself When I got to the rear of the team and the front of the vehicle I looked up and tried to smile. My face felt taunt around my temple and cheeks, and I knew my eyes were probably bloodshot and dim. I was on the verge of breaking into a sweat again, despite the fact I was standing in a foot of snow, bare-headed and practically bare-footed.
My old pal watched me, "Son this is Mrs. Claus, she wanted to ride along and get out of the house for awhile."
"Howdy ma'am, it's real nice to meet you," and I extended my hand to shake.
The way she reached for it, I could tell it was not a natural gesture for her, but her shake was firm. Then, instead of letting go, she placed her other palm on the back of my hand, peering into my face the whole time.
"Goodness sakes, your hand is as hot as a two dollar pistol." Then she stood up and felt my forehead. "We need to get inside and get you out of this messy weather."
She immediately climbed down from her position and blew past me headed for the tent.
I looked dumbly after her for a second, and then panic-stricken I looked at my old pard sitting there like a big goof. Then I cranked back around to his wife as she plowwaddled towards the tent and the sleeping cowboy inside.
"Hey wait, you're gonna wake up Bob."
"I'll take care of Bob," her back answered. Then she pulled back the flap and
Santa cleared his throat and I turned back to him. "It'll be all right, let's unhook the boys and go in."
Then I noticed the other passengers. Sitting directly behind him was the cutest little elf I'd ever seen.
"Oh yes, this is Jingles. She's one of Mama's helpers."
I didn't know they made elves in the female variety, but then I guess where the hell do elves come from anyway. This little gal was definitely female too, her smile and eyes captivated my momentary attention and her perky little ears added to her allure.
I stood a little taller, smoothed back my hair and straightened my mustache giving my best Gary Cooper smile.
"Well howdy ma'am it's nice you could come. I hope you don't mind
Right then, that ol' mule-headed Donder decided he'd been in his traces long enough. He kicked me so hard in the backside my voice changed.
Jingles giggled hilariously and hopped down to scurry to the tent. I clung to the front of the rig and tried to hold back my cussing. Then I heard a nasal laugh coming from the other backseat and through the blood in my eye I saw the miscreant little spy that I'd had problems with before.
I growled and wondered -what was the proper way to skin an elf.
The old chief hustled around the sleigh to put an arm around my shoulders. He gave me a hug and helped me stand straight again.
I shook my head and flexed my legs, trying to get rid of the pain.
"Dad-gum, I'm getting too old to get kicked and tromped-on all the time."
He grinned at me and gave me another squeeze, then we both limped around and began unhitching the team. The runt helped us, but he kept his distance from me.
The inside of the tent was transformed, it was Christmas. Strings of lights and garlands were wrapped around the drying racks. Ornaments hung from the ridgepole, and toys were aligned on the kitchen shelves. A train set ran busily in circles on the top shelf giving off wisps of smoke and whistling periodically. The lower shelf had several wind-up toys doing their tricks, and on the stump beside Bob's bed a music box was playing the mournful Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago.
Bob was a study unto himself A magical golden doily sheet had been spread over him, obviously some type of shield from the goings on around him. Yet, we could still hear him, and his occasional whistling yelp of a snore brought uncontrollable giggles from the cutsy petite Jingles. She was perched on the foot of his bunk, observing him as if he were in an aquarium. The other impish maniac slid around my legs and joined her on the foot of the bunk. He sat there with his hands in his lap looking like a puppy that always got caught peeing on the carpet but promised to quit one of these days.
Mrs. Claus seemed to find things to do around the stove. It even had a golden shine instead of the normal ugly reddish black smolder. She had the room warmed nicely and it smelled like cinnamon cookies.
I sat on my bunk and Santa leaned against the lower kitchen shelf He lit his pipe and his soft liquid eyes poured benevolence towards me.
"You been doing all fight?" he asked.
"Aw I reckon so," I answered without thinking.
Mrs. Claus gave a sniff We both looked at her, but she kept her back towards us and continued puttering around with the stove.
Santa squinted and held his pipe in one hand and crossed his arms holding his elbow with the other.
"Mama, what's the matter, you've been quiet all the way over here this evening."
She turned slowly and wiped her hands on her apron. Then she latched a look on me that would have withered a prune into gray dust.
"I just wanted to see what kind of critter it is that you go gallivanting off to visit every year in hunting camp."
My heart seized and began to- sink into my stomach. She continued.
"Every year, my man goes off to tune his team and he comes home half blitzed with knots all over his head. Lord, one year he came home full of fire ant bites. It takes him almost a week to recover, and the only thing he says is he's been visiting his Texas buddy. Then when I ask my confidantes about this Texan, they say he gets thrown in jail ever so often, he's just as apt to get in a fight at a bar as play the piano at Sunday School and he drinks Tequila by the quart. When I asked what kind of business this character was in, all I could find out was it had something to do with shooting and drinking and riding wild horses."
About now, I wanted to crawl under a rock, but she continued.
"I couldn't figure it out. Santa has a naughty list and a nice list. Why would he spend his precious time visiting a hoodlum, a thug? Mr. Brune I wanted to get a first hand look at you. Who is the Lost Rider of Yaupon Creek?"
She stood there with her balled up fists on her fat hips looking down at me the way women do sometimes. I looked over at Santa and he was leaning against the lower shelf with his legs crossed, studying something in the bowl of his pipe. The evil midget was sitting smugly swinging his legs off the bunk, and I decided if I could ever get a loop on him I'd dangle him off a bridge somewhere.
Mrs. Claus hadn't moved, she expected an answer. Her in-my-face attitude was becoming boorish and I began drowning in a sullen funk.
Jingles was trying to ignore the confrontation. She sat quartered away from everyone glued to watching Bob.
Suddenly Bob let out a great howling yelp of a snore and terrified the poor little gal. She shrieked and jumped to the floor ducking behind Santa's legs. Then the troubled sleeper rolled over and bellered something about 'catch that damn mule I'm going fishin' as he snuggled himself into a new position.
I sat looking at Bob and then I smiled. The old wrangler had given me a wakeup call. My confidence came back. It wasn't the words, so much as it was the nature of what he'd said. My sharpened gaze turned back to the old wife. Hell, for a second I felt sorry for her.
'Ma'am it's not unusual for my friends wives not to like me. I might represent something that they're scared of Maybe they think I'll lead their men off to do something less than respectable. Truth is, it just ain't so. You asked about that lost rider foolishness. Well that was a moniker that would fit on anybody that don't know which way to jump next. Fact is, right now I'm pretty satisfied with myself I can go anywhere, work for anybody, and do almost anything. My biggest downfall is that I keep challenging myself
" Thing is, I've learned to be satisfied with not being satisfied. I figure being the Lost Rider ain't so depressing anymore. My daughter is the most meaningful force in my life, but just as meaningful is the example I set. I don't want her to ever be complacent, or feel that she has to put up with a status quo that someone else creates for her. I don't ever want to hear her say, 'Oh well, that's the way it is.' I don't want to see the world ruin her. She's told me that I'm older than her friends' parents, but I act younger. Well, let's see how long I can keep that up."
About then I noticed that Mrs. Claus' informer hadn't been paying attention. He'd found a black marks-a-lot and was fixing to paint up ol' Bob's face. I stood up and before anyone could complain, I grabbed him by the seat of the britches, took two steps and slung him out into the snow. I heard a muffled giggle come from behind Santa's legs.
Mrs. Claus was looking sheepish and had gone back to working on the stove. I had a head of steam going and I wasn't quite finished.
"This writing stuff that I'm fixing to try my hand at seems like an answer to self independence. At least it gives you freedom to think. That answer alone makes it worth the effort. I just gotta hope I have enough sense to pull it off."
"So you see why all that stuff you were worried about seems trivial to me. I'm no he-man- woman-hater. I'm not really any kind of an outlaw. I'm just a guy that's lived long enough to recognize right and wrong, and knows how the world really works. I'm gonna play by society's rules but I'm gonna win, --my way."
The little runt tried to come back through the tent flap, but my rolled up left paw caught him square on top of the head and sent him back out. Except for a squeaky hoot from under the lower shelf no one seemed to notice.
"Goodness, I haven't given a speech like that in years, I need a drink."
I regretted I said it as soon as it left my lips. My cold prevented me from drinking, but the remark wasn't conducive to the point I'd been trying to make.
"You know, all I want to do is get my work done so that me'n Bob can go fishing, and the rest of the world can go hang."
I didn't realize she had the whole concept under control. She came from the stove with a steaming mug in her hands.
"Here try this it'll help that cold. You cowboys got pint-size brains rolling around in five gallon heads. When they start teaching monkeys to pack mules you'll all be out of work. Meanwhile I guess y'all aren't such a bad crew to get tangled up with. A person could sure do worse for friends. You guys get off to the hills and don't have to answer to a blessed soul. Independence of thought and soul is worth more than money -- the cowboy way. For your daughter's sake-- I hope you can find a way to live like that."
She looked at me and smiled and was sincere.
Santa was lighting his pipe and seemed content. All the tension had gone from the room. Now that she had softened, Mrs. Claus looked completely different to me. She seemed much younger.
I sipped the hot apple smelling drink and was caught short of breath by the fermented strength of the brew. My eyes bulged and I swallowed hard.
'Soy, this stuff has some kick."
The woman smiled and winked, and it peeled more years from her face.
"That ought to put a little juice back in you."
It was my turn to smile and wink.
"Tell you what, if things slow down up at the Pole, you want to go to a few Rodeos next summer ?"
She snickered and poured herself a mug. Santa frowned and started staring into the bowl of his pipe again.
Bob rolled over and moaned.
"I wish yall'd shutup so a man could get some sleep."
The Lost Rider of Yaupon Creek