Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stubby Pringle’s Christmas

Stubby Pringle’s Christmas

Stubby Pringle was a cowhand on the Triple X Ranch.  He was tall in the saddle, built like a bear, and just as tough, even though his 20th birthday was still six weeks away.    On this day he wore a fleece-lined jacket, heavy gloves, and two red bandannas around his neck, his battered hat pulled down low to keep the icy wind off.  He was Stubby Pringle, and this was his night to howl, because Stubby Pringle was heading for the Christmas dance at the schoolhouse in the valley.

His horse was a flop-eared strawberry roan that knew it had 27 miles of hard winter riding before him, and 27 harder uphill miles to return by morning, but Stubby Pringle didn’t mind.  He sat in his saddle and grinned into the cold wind.  There was a two-pound box of fancy chocolates in his right-side saddlebag.  In the left was a paper parcel containing a piece of fine dress goods.  These were his ammunition for the plan he had in mind to soften the affections of one of the pretty girls down at the dance.

“You’re a dang-blatted young fool,” said Old Jake from the cabin doorway.  “Riding out on a night like this, even if it is Christmas Eve, is crazy.  But iffen I was your age agin, I reckon I’d be doing it too.  Squeeze one of ‘em for me.”

Stubby lifted the reins and his horse lifted it’s feet.  They dropped over the edge of the mountain and down the mountainside.  “Wa-hoo!”  he yelled.  “Gals an’ women an grandmothers!  Raise your skirts and start askipping!  I’m acoming!”

Stubby Pringle raced down the mountainside until he slowed at the rise of the last low ridge.  But then Stubby heard something off to the right.  It sounded like an ax striking wood.  What kind of dong-bonging ding-busted fool would be chopping wood on Christmas Eve?  And what kind of chopping was that, anyway?  It was uneven in rhythm and feeble in stroke.

Stubby pulled his horse to the right.  He was a cowman, and no true cowman rides on without stopping to check something strange on the range.  Lantern light showed faintly ahead from a small cabin at the edge of the clearing where the Hendersons, homesteaders, were trying to make a go of it.

Stubby Pringle saw a woman wearing a ragged man’s jacket over her long dress.  It kept getting in the way as she tried to swing the ax into a good-sized branch on the ground.  The ax bounced and barely missed her ankle.

Stubby road his horse over and said, “Ma’am, are you trying to cripple yourself?”  She just stared at him.  “This is man’s work,” he said.  “Where’s your man?”

“He’s sick,” she said.  “Doc thinks he’ll be all right.  Only he’s mighty weak now.”

Stubby Pringle looked off at the last low ridgetop that hid the valley and the schoolhouse.  “Likely they ain’t much more’n started yet,” he thought.  Then looking at the woman he said, “Ma’am,  I’ll just chop you a bit of wood.”

He was Stubby Pringle, born with an ax in his hand, and he made the chips fly like stormflakes of snow.  Soon he had cut enough wood to last a week, and he brought it all in and piled it against the wall by the fireplace.  Looking around he saw Mr. Henderson lying on a big old bed, covered with a blanket, his face gray-pale, sleeping.  Stubby stepped to the doorway of the back room.  Faint in the dimness inside he saw a curly headed little girl under an old quilt in one bunk, and a boy who would be waist high under another old quilt in the bed. 

He turned back and said, “I got to be getting along.”  Then he stopped.  Something was missing.  “Where’s your tree?”  he asked.  “Kids got to have a Christmas tree.”  The woman sank down onto a chair and he heard her sigh.  “I ain’t had time to cut one,” she said.

“Man’s job anyway,” Stubby said.  “I’ll get it for you.  Then I got to be going.”

Stubby scooped up an ax and strode off.  He was Stubby Pringle, born an expert on Christmas trees.  Soon he found a beauty and his ax blade sliced keen and swift, then he carried it back to the cabin.

Stubby Pringle set the tree up in the center of the front-room.  “There, ma’am,” he said.  “Get your things out an start decorating.  I got to be going.”

He stopped in the doorway.  He heard the sigh behind him.  “We got no things,” she said.

Stubby Pringle looked off at the last low ridgetop hiding the valley and the schoolhouse.  “Reckon I still got a bit of time,” he says.  “They’ll be whooping it up mighty late.”  Taking off his hat, gloves,  bandannas and jacket he asked for things and the woman jumped up to get what she had.  Soon pinto beans strung on thread were brightening the tree in the firelight.  Strips of  Stubby’s bandannas bobbed in bows on branch ends.  Snippets of fleece from the lining of his jacket sprinkled over the tree, glistening like fresh fallen snow.  “All you got to do now is get out what you got for the kids and put it under.  I really got to be going.”

He stopped in the open doorway.  Somehow he knew without turning his head that two tears were sliding down the woman’s thin, pinched cheeks.  “You go on along,” she says.  “They’re good young uns.  We ain’t got anything for them.  But they know how it is.  They ain’t expecting a thing.”

Stubby Pringle stood in the doorway, looking out at the last ridgetop that hid the valley and the schoolhouse.  “I reckon I still got a mite more time,” he said.  “Likely they’ll be sashaying around till it’s most morning.”

Stubby Pringle strode out to his horse, then back again into the cabin.  In one hand he had a paper parcel.  In the other hand he had a chunk of good pine wood.  He tossed the parcel into the lap fold s of the woman’s apron.  “There’s the makings of a right cute dress for the girl,” he said.  “I’ll just whittle me out a little something for the boy.”

The woman sat in the rocking chair and sewed.  A dress shaped under her hands, small and flounced with puffy sleeves.  On a stool nearby Stubby Pringle sat, a piece of good pine wood in one hand, his knife in the other.  It was a splendid seven-bladed knife he always kept with him.  There in his hands something was shaping.  A horse.  Flop-eared head high on stretched out neck. 

At last, Stubby closed his knife and put it in his pocket.  The dress was finished in the woman’s lap.  She was asleep in her rocking chair.  Stubby Pringle took the dress and put it under the tree.  He set the wooden horse beside it.  Quietly he strode out to his horse and back.  He carried the box of fancy chocolates and gently laid it in the lap of the woman.  Standing by the big old bed he looked down at the snoring man.  “Ain’t fair to forget him,” he said.  Taking his seven bladed knife from his pocket he laid it on the blanket on the bed.  Then swift as the sliding moon shadow he was gone.

Firm in the saddle Stubby Pringle was ready to howl, headed for the dance at the schoolhouse in the valley.  But as he crested the ridgetop he saw the tiny lights in the schoolhouse windows winking out.  Tiny dark shapes and wagons were pulling away.  Turning slowing Stubby Pringle began his lonesome way back up the snow covered mountainside.  His shoulders sagged as he thought about the undanced dances, the unstomped floor boards, and the women left unwhirled.  Half asleep in his saddle, he was thinking of bygone Christmas seasons and the old, ragged Christmas picture book he used to poor over in the flickering firelight when he was a child. 

Suddenly he heard something.  The tinkle of sleigh bells. 

Sleigh bells?

Yes.  I am telling this straight.  Suddenly Stubby saw something.  Antlered heads high, frosty breath streaming, bodies rushing swift and silent.  Reindeer?  Yes. Reindeer swooping down and leaping past and rising again.  And then, hard on their heels, almost lost in the swirling snow mist of their passing, something big and bulky with runners like a sleigh and the flash of a white beard whipping in the wind and the crack of a long whip snapping.

Out of the dark night ahead, mingling with the moan of the wind, came a long drawn chuckle, jolly and cheery.  And with it a long drawn word.  “We-e-el-ll   do-o-o-ne….pa-a-artner!”

Stubby Pringle stretched up tall, surging up the steep mountainside to the little line cabin.  Slipping into his cold, clammy bunk he heard Old Jake from the other bunk say, “Was it worth all that riding?”

“Why, sure,” says Stubby.  “I had a real good time.”

Say anything you want.  I know, you know, any dong-bonged, ding-busted, dang-blatted fool ought to know, that icicles breaking off branches can sound to drowsy ears like sleigh bells.  Blurry eyes half asleep can see strange things.  Deer make tracks like those of reindeer.  Wind sighing and soughing and moaning through piney treetops can sound like someone shaping words.  But we could talk and talk and it would mean nothing to Stubby Pringle. 

Stubby is wiser than we are.  He knows who it was, plump and jolly and belly bouncing, who spoke to him that night out on the wind whipped winter worn mountainside.

“We-e-el-l-l  do-o-o-ne….pa-a-artner!”

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