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A cowboy’s Christmas story

Erica Ramsey Louder for Progressive Forage Published on 01 December 2020

For the last 20 years of my grandpa’s life, he wrote cowboy poetry and performed all over the Intermountain West. This is one of my favorites, and it is perfect for reciting around Christmas.

Like most poetry, but especially with cowboy poetry, it’s best read out loud.

A group of men sat talkin’, oh, this was some time ago, one mentioned it was close to Christmas, and he had no place to go. One said, “What difference does it make, there ain’t no Santa Claus. This goodwill toward men is just a dream, and it’s really a lost cause.”

Then one old boy sittin’ back behind, spoke in a slow and quiet way, and I’ve spent some years a thinkin’ ‘bout what he had to say.

Says he, “I recall when times were tough, and winters long and cold, to make it ‘til spring, everything you had was traded, ate, or sold. Had a homestead, sod house, wife, and boy, two horses and a cow, two dollars to make it until spring, though I didn’t know just how.

“A drifter came through, had supper, then he spent the night. Said they were buildin’ a railroad, hirin’ and payin’ up there right. The fellow doin’ the hirin’ would be there just through Saturday, then he would be a-loadin’ up, and goin’ on his way.”

Says the old boy: “Saturday was Christmas, but if that was how it had to be, I’d leave this afternoon, travel Christmas Eve, cuz I had to go and see. That only gave a night, and part of a day to a make an eighty-mile trip. I rode my big black Morgan horse, he could hold a steady clip.

“That afternoon I saddled up, and lit out across the hills thinkin’ maybe I could get a job, so I could pay off all my bills. Oh, it was calm and clear and cold, a big moon shinin’ bright, and there seemed to be an extra glow in the sky that night.

“The ol’ horse was travelin’ good, we was movin’ right along, but I just couldn’t rest my mind thinkin’ something must be wrong. Thought maybe I should pull him up then just turn around. The trail was gettin’ steep, and there was snow here on the ground.

“But my horse was needin’ water and there was a spring on up ahead. I had fetched a little bag of grain I’d stop and get him fed. By that spring stood an old milk cow a gettin' her a drink. Well, where in the world had she come from, it made me stop and think.

“No, I don’t have time to worry about her or the reason she was there. Maybe the owner was a lookin’ for her, he must be close somewhere. I watered my horse and gave him a feed, then dropped my rope on that old cow. I’d try to find where she came from, but I wasn’t sure just how.

“I backtracked there for a while, all the time thinkin’; This just won’t pay, ‘cuz where I had to be tomorrow I was goin’ the other way. Oh, I was about to get my rope back and just let that ol’ cow go, then I saw some horse tracks goin’ across a patch of snow.

“Now maybe that someone lookin’ for her, and that sure brung me hope, until I noticed from the marks in the snow, he was draggin’ a halter rope. I tracked him out and found him, rope tangled up and there he stood and the time that I was wastin’ wasn’t goin’ to do me any good.

“Why it was getting’ close to daylight, and still a long, long ways to go; whether I could make it now or not I’m sure I didn’t know. I started back trackin’, then there was footprints everywhere; I could tell by the way they wandered, someone must be lost out there.

“I’d make a circle, go back and forth across – The best way I could think of to find someone that is lost. Then I heard a mumblin’ sound over there behind a rock and there a young boy was kneelin’; him and the Lord a-havin’ a little talk.

“Oh he was right near froze to death, his hands and his face all blue. By then to save himself was far more than he could do. I made a warmup fire, and wrapped my slicker around his back. He said him and his ma were livin’ somewhere out there in a shack.

“Well, it didn’t take long to find it; the horse and cow kinda led the way. She and the boy wanted to thank me but had nothin’ they could pay. She said her man was huntin’ work, and that things was getting’ bad. For him to have something to go on took all the money that they had.

“It made my heart ache; I know how it felt, this being’ poor. Handed her our last two dollars and said: ‘I wish it could be more.’ Well, I did make it into town just in time to catch the boss. I was one gave out old cowboy ridin’ a plumb give out old horse.

“And he said I sure had a job, and he’d hire my horses too. I had ten days to get home and back, there was a lot of work to do. Gave me an advance on comin’ wages, and sent me on my way. Boys you’ll never know how thankful I was on that Christmas day.

“No, that ain’t all the story, boys, the best is yet for you to hear. Yes, there's got to be a Santa Claus, and good will rings loud and clear. For when I got home from that long trip I found my wife and little boy with a story they had to tell me, their hearts was full of joy.

“About how the corral gate got busted, the horse and cow had wandered away, and little Joe had gone to look for them, and he had lost his way. And how tired and how cold he was, how he wanted to go to sleep. He knelt down beside a rock, and asked the Lord his soul to keep.

“Well, out of the dark this rider came leadin’ Bess and ol’ Bolly too. Why I couldn’t believe what I was hearin’, but I knew it must be true. And that night after prayers was gave, the wife said: ‘Oh no we ain’t poor. That man gave us two dollars and said he wished it could be more.’”

—Bill Ramsey 1998  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Erica Ramsey Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

NOTE: Formatting of the poem was changed for viewability.

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