A lonely cowboy Christmas

by Kevin on December 3, 2010

Billy rode with Orville down a narrow gulch lookin’ for calvin’ heifers. After half a day of riding, Billy finally broke the silence. “I really thought we’d be off this run down cow camp by Christmas. Don’t look like that’s gonna happen now.”

Orville shrugged in resigned agreement as he searched the brush.

“You don’t care about bein’ home for Christmas Orv?”

Orville pulled his bay to a stop and reached in his pocket for a smoke. “Let’s go ahead and make camp here,” he said. “This spot’s low enough to keep that north wind off of us. I would fight a panther for a cup of coffee ’bout right now. After we down some of this sorry jerked beef, I’ll tell you about my favorite Christmas.”

They dismounted and dragged a dead mesquite over to their little makeshift campsite. Billy started breakin’ the branches off and stackin’ ’em where they would catch fire the best. Orville dug in his saddle bag and pulled out a little pan for the coffee.

With the coffee boilin’ and Billy tryin’ to dig a mesquite thorn out of his boot, Orville said, “This won’t be the first Christmas I’ve spent out in the pasture.”

Billy looked up from his diggin’ and said, “Oh yeah?”

Orville had that long vacant stare reminiscent of someone who’s mind is replaying a time long since past.

“Me and a bunch of cowboys got stuck in a snowstorm bringing some cattle out of the Gila country in New Mexico. The only place there weren’t no snow was behind my eyes and around the fire. We had planned to be back the day before Christmas, but old Mama Nature had other plans for us.”

Billy had put his knife down and was slowly gnawing on a piece of dried beef as he listened attentively.

“There was five of us on the drive. Only two of the cowboys actually had a wife and kids, but none of us cottoned to spendin’ Christmas huddled around a fire. It was so cold that we blistered our faces near the fire and endured the frost bite that seemed to be attacking from the off side.”

Billy could just imagine the scene as they both sat close to the fire they had built. Billy shivered even though it wasn’t near as cold as the night Orville talked about.

Orville continued, “Some of the boys got to feelin’ mighty sorry for themselves about missin’ Christmas. While they were grumblin’ and moanin’ louder than the storm, ol’ Shot Dennis, the outfit’s ramrod, got up and walked out into the snow. Nobody really thought much about it. They was much too concerned with their own difficulties.”

“Shot returned about ten minutes later with icicles hangin’ from his mustache, but he never said a word as he sat back down by the fire. After warmin’ his hands for a minute, Shot said ‘Boys, I’m real sorry ya’lls gonna miss Christmas. I sure didn’t reckon on this storm. But lets make the best of it. What’ll ya’ll say to that?’ ”

“How do you make the best of Christmas hunkered around a fire freezin’ to death?” Billy whined.

Orville just smiled half a smile and continued. “The boys felt the same Billy. One of them asked where the Christmas tree was. Old Shot told him to look around. We didn’t just have one, we had hundreds all draped with snow and mistletoe. One of the cowboys laughed and rubbed the youngest cowboy on the head and said that we even had a kid with us for Christmas.”

Billy scoffed at this because he wasn’t but about 5 miles down the road from a changed voice. Orville saw the look and grinned. It was the same look that young lad had given.

“How could it be Christmas without some presents Orville? That’s the best part of Christmas!” Billy said with an astonished look on his face.

“Oh, but there was! And since tonight’s Christmas Eve, I’m gonna give my gift I got that night to you.”

“No kiddin’ Orville?!” Billy was gettin’ excited.

“Yup, it’s ’bout time I passed this on to someone else.”

“What is it Orv? You got it with you?”

Orville reached in his pocket and grabbed something. He pulled it out, and after long look, he handed it to Billy.

“Gee Orville,” Billy said. “I don’t know what to say.”

Billy looked long at the gift he’d been given. He was absolutely speechless. When he finally found his words he said, “Thanks for the rock Orville.”

Orville laughed as he said, “That’s no ordinary rock Billy. You see, Shot had disappeared that night and walked down by a little creek. When he had come back and warmed his hands that were nearly solid blue from the cold, he gave each one of us cowboys one of the rocks he’d gathered.”

“He said that Christmas was a time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. No gift that we could ever give to one another would ever match the gift that we now held. A gift more precious than any king’s treasure.”

“I was the first to notice some odd scratches on the flat side of the rock that you now hold Billy. I’ve carried it ever since that night and treated it like the fantastic gift it is.”

Billy leaned closer to the fire and turned the rock at an angle to get a better look at the worn inscription.

He finally spotted it.

“4givnes” Billy sounded out slowly.

With just a whisper, Orville said “Amen.”

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