The Christmas Tree Trail – Dogbite Fifteen
The Christmas Tree Trail
Christmas could be a sad time for the working cowhand, many of them young, transient workers without a real home other than a bunkhouse. It can be an even tougher time for the older, long-time hands who have little to celebrate and little to look forward to other than a couple of days off, a bottle or two from The Boss and, if they were lucky, the foreman as well. Those and a jug or two of forty-rod stashed away for the occasion helped to lighten the load of a heavy few days.
A bottleful of memories is no replacement for a loving family and yet bunkhouse buddies are in many ways a family in their own right. While they no longer believe in a Santa Claus who was long ‘Gone to Texas’ and faraway it was still Christmas. Very few gifts exchanged but an effort is always made to ease the melancholy. Cookie makes a big show, a couple of wild turkeys with all of the fixings, a mountainous apple pie and whisky to round off a Christmas day feast. The evening that followed usually ended late in a tobacco smoke-filled room with a mournful sing-song to a lone guitar or mouthorgan around the red hot, pot-bellied stove.
Such is the cowhand’s lot but, one thing is certain, there has to be a Christmas tree.
While the festivities were limited that was a sure enough certainty, there had to be a tree and somebody had to ride ‘The Christmas Tree Run’ and take the small buckboard up to the high ground beyond the Rocking W’s meadowed valley to the pine trees that grew along the north ridge just about where the good winter grass ended and the rocky escarpment began. Those somebodies happened to be Dan Crow and Henry Lee, neither man too happy at the prospect of a sore backside and a long cold ride on a buckboard to the high country with a promise of early snow in the wintery sky.
Their combined protest of ‘we did it last year, Jake,’ to J.C. Cobb, the Rocking W’s ramrod, fell on deaf ears.
‘That’s right, boys and that makes you the best men for the job. Most of the older ha
nds are in Dogbite and if I send a couple of those shave tails up the hill they would likely get lost in the dark on the way back.’
Two days before Christmas and, apart from a couple of snoring early-nighters, the bunkhouse was deserted. Lee was mending the eternal hole in one of his once-white socks and Dan Crow was reading Ben Hur wondering why the hell there were no lawmen or cowboys in it when it was written by the man who really brought about the downfall of Billy the Kid. Was it allegorical, he wondered? He thought of mentioning to it Lee who claimed to own Billy’s pistol, but thought better of it. He dogged the corner of the page, stretched and wandered over to table where Lee was trying to thread a darning needle for the tenth time. Crow tossed the makings onto the table and the pair rolled themselves cigarettes in silence, each thinking the same thing; was there a way out of the cold early morning’s Christmas tree run?
‘You need some eye-glasses,’ Crow said, quietly blowing smoke rings into the warm air.
‘What we both need is a way out of that long, cold ride up the hill to get a damned tree we could have cut before the cold set in.’ Lee said.
‘It would have died.’
‘Ponderosa is evergreen.’
‘Not when its cut down it isn’t. It goes brown and sheds just like any other tree.’
‘I can’t think of no way out of this one, best we learn to live with it and get an early start tomorrow.’
‘We could try The Kentucky Kid again,’ Crow said, wistfully looking over to where the sleeping Kid was gently snoring into his striped pillow.
‘No, he wouldn’t fall for it twice and he let us off easy last time.’
‘He should have thanked us.’ Crow said. ‘He came back with that outlaw pinto real lady broke and gentled. The Boss was tickled pink, invited him up to the house for supper, and his sister has a soft spot for him now, I seen them riding out and they looked good together,’ said Crow, wistfully.
‘Our days and those days,’ said Henry Lee, ‘our time is long gone and I’m glad it worked out for The Kid, I never felt good about what we did to him. Besides, he would get himself lost up there on his own, he’s a close-to-home cowboy, not a hill climber. Lucky he ever found his way back here from wherever that pinto took him.’
‘Took him a while.’
‘Be that as it may, this isn’t a ride for The Kid, he’s not up to it, we have to step up and get her done. I’m not moving on that decision, Crow, so don’t waste both of our times you trying to persuade me otherwise.’
It was a long hard ride to the foothills and the shaggy coated pulling horse was in no mood to hurry. It was late afternoon before they reached the first stand of pines, selected and felled one, gathered a couple of gunny sacks full of cones for the bunkhouse stove, drank some cold bottled coffee, ate their paper wrapped corn dodgers and set off back down the hill.
They had not been on the move for more than five minutes before the sky suddenly darkened to an ominous, slate grey and the southerly wind changed direction for no reason at all as far as Crow could figure, and began blowing the first of the winter’s northern snowflakes hard at their backs. Within moments their range of vision was cut from miles to a few yards, decreased with every step and the temperature dropped sharply. Finally, bitterly cold and tired of fighting the blizzard, they gave up and pulled the small buckboard into the lee of a large rock and unhitched and hobbled the shaggy pony.
‘We have to get a fire going before we freeze to death.’ Crow said, pulling his scarf tighter over his hat and forcing the crumpled brim down to give his ears some protection.
‘We got some paper and we got some matches.’ Lee said, blowing on his hands. ‘We can pull the lower branches off’n that damned tree for kindling, use the cones for starters and break off the sides of the wagon for firewood, but we had best get a move on while we got the energy to do it or we’re going to freeze for sure.’
‘I seen a frozen man onetime,’ Crow said, as they sat beneath the buckboard in front of a crackling fire. ‘He was granite grey, eyes wine red and wide open, a deadly smile on his face, his lips froze apart, jaw clenched, his stiff hands around his long gun, the muzzle under his chin. I think he tried to shoot himself but didn’t have the strength to pull the trigger. You bring your Winchester, Lee?’
Crow grinned. ‘Just asking was all.’
Around midnight the whining north wind dropped as suddenly as it had come and a warmer, fresh southerly quickly blew away much of the drifting snow, clearing much of the downhill trail. A little before dawn, Dan Crow and Henry Lee rode the hardy pulling horse into the yard of the Rocking W, the pair clinging to each other for warmth. The cook banged the triangle and within minutes the two men were helped from the tough little animal’s back and half dragged into the warm bunkhouse. They shivered and their teeth rattled but they had no frostbite and warmed through quickly with the help of a shot or two from the cook’s brandy bottle.
‘That tough little horse okay?’ Asked Crow.
‘In better shape than the pair of you,’ said the ramrod, with some concern in his usually brusk tone.
‘Rough time for you old boys,’ The Boss said, relief in his voice as he refilled their mugs with brandy-laced coffee. ‘Cobb and me thought you were goners, that storm came out of nowhere. I’ll send someone out for the buckboard in a while.’
‘No good, Boss,’ Lee said. ‘We lit a fire under it and it kind of got out of control, burned it out.’
‘And the tree?’
‘That was on the buckboard.’
‘No worries, boys, just so long as y’all are ok. The bunkhouse can have the big tree we’ve got up the house.’
‘You already have a tree up at the ranch house?’ Said Crow.
‘Sure enough, Dan. The Kentucky Kid went up there day before yesterday and cut us a big one.’
Lee stared at Crow and Dan Crow stared long and hard right back at him saying, ‘merry goddamned Christmas, Henry Lee.’ It was all he could think of to say.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2017