Stubby Pringle’s Christmas

High on the mountainside by the little cabin in the crisp clean dusk of evening Stubby Pringle swings into saddle. He has shape of bear, bundled thick against cold. Leather chaps cover patched corduroy pants. Fleece-lined jacket bulges body and heavy gloves blunt fingers. Two red bandannas fatten throat under chin. Battered hat is pulled down to sit on ears.

Stubby Pringle looks out over worlds of snow and ice and tree and rock. He stretches tall and hat brushes stars in sky. He is Stubby Pringle, cowhand of the Triple X, and this is his night to howl. He is heading for the Christmas dance at the schoolhouse in the valley.

His horse is flop-eared ewe-necked cat-hipped strawberry roan that looks like it should have died weeks ago but has iron rods for bones and nitroglycerin for blood and can go from here to doomsday. It knows that 27 miles of hard winter going are foreordained for this evening and 27 more of harder uphill return by morning.

Stubby Pringle sits in his saddle and he grins into cold and distance and future full of festivity. Those are careless haphazard scrambled features under the low hat brim. Not much fuzz yet on his chin. Why, shucks, is he just a boy? Don’t make that mistake. Though his 20th birthday is still six weeks away, Stubby has been taking care of himself since he was orphaned at 13. Stubby has been doing a man’s work since he was 15.

Stubby Pringle slaps right-side saddlebag. It contains a two-pound box of fancy chocolates. He slaps left-side saddlebag. It holds a paper parcel that contains a piece of dress goods. Interesting items, yes. Ammunition for the campaign he has in mind to soften the affections of whichever female of the right vintage among those at the schoolhouse appeals to him most.

Stubby Pringle is just another of far-scattered poorly paid patched-clothes cowhands who inhabit these parts. He knows that. But he is Stubby Pringle, true begotten son of the wildest jackass, and he has been riding line through winter storms for two months without a break and this is his night to stomp floorboards till schoolhouse shakes and kick heels up to lanterns above and whirl a willing female till she is dizzy enough to see past patched clothes to the man inside them.

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

Stubby lifts reins and the roan sighs and lifts feet. At easy amble they drop over the edge of benchland and on down the great bleak expanse of mountainside. “Wahoo!” he yells. “Gals an’ women an’ grandmothers!” he shouts. “Raise your skirts and start a-skipping. I’m a-coming!”

He slaps spurs to roan. It leaps like mountain lion, full into hard gallop down slope, rushing, reckless of crusted drifts, and ice-coated bush branches slapping at them.

He is Stubby Pringle, born with spurs on, nursed on tarantula juice, weaned on rawhide, at home in the saddle of a hurricane in shape of horse that can race to edge of eternity and back. He is ten feet tall and the horse is gigantic, with wings soaring in 40-foot leaps down the flank of the whitened wonder of a winter world. They slow at the bottom. They look up at the rise of the last low ridge ahead.

Hold it, Stubby. What is that? Off to the right. He listens. Sound of axe striking wood.

What kind of dong-bonging ding-busted fool would be chopping wood on Christmas Eve? What kind of chopping is this anyway? Uneven in rhythm, feeble in stroke.

He pulls the roan to the right. He is Stubby Pringle, born to tune of blatting calves branded at birth, cowman raised and cowman to the marrow, and no true cowman rides on without stopping to check anything strange on range. Lantern light shows faintly ahead through a small oiled-paper window.

Yes, of course. The Henderson place. Homesteaders. Betting the government they can stave off starving for five years in exchange for 160 acres of land. Land that just might be able to support all of four thin steers to a whole section. Homesteaders. Always out of almost everything, money and food and tools and smiles and joy of living. Except maybe hope and stubborn endurance.

Stubby Pringle sees a woman. Her face is gray and pinched and tired. Ragged man’s jacket bumps over long wooly dress and clogs arms as she tries to swing an axe into a good-sized branch on the ground. Axe bounces and barely misses an ankle.

He swings the roan in close. “Ma’am,” says Stubby. “You trying to cripple yourself?” She just stares at him. “Man’s work,” he says. “Where’s your man?”

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

Stubby Pringle looks off at last low ridge top that hides valley and schoolhouse. “Likely they ain’t much more’n started yet,” he says. He looks again at the woman. “Ma’am,” he says. “I’ll just chop you a bit of wood.”

He is Stubby Pringle, moonstruck maverick of the Triple X, born with axe in hands, with strength of stroke in muscles, weaned on whetstone, fed on cordwood, raised to fell whole forests. He is ten feet tall and axe is enormous in moonlight and chips fly like storm flakes of snow. He leans axe against a stump and he scoops up whole cords at a time and strides to bark-slab shack and kicks the door open.

Both corners of front room by fireplace are piled full now, wood enough for a whole wicked winter week. Stubby looks around him. Man lies on big old bed, blanket over, face gray-pale, snoring long and slow. Stubby steps to doorway to back room. Faint in dimness inside he sees in one bunk, under an old quilt, a curly-headed small girl and in another, under other old quilt, a boy who would be waist-high awake and standing.

He turns back. “I got to be getting along,” he says. He starts toward outer door.

He stops. Something is missing. “Where’s your tree?” he says. “Kids got to have a Christmas tree.”

He sees the woman sink down on chair. He hears a sigh come from her. “I ain’t had time to cut one,” she says.

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

He scoops up axe and strides off. He is Stubby Pringle, born an expert on Christmas trees, nursed on pine needles, weaned on pinecones, raised with an eye for size and shape and symmetry. There. A beauty. Axe blade slices keen and swift. He strikes back with tree on shoulder.

Stubby Pringle sets it up center of front-room floor, and it stands perky and proud. “There, ma’am” he says. “Get your things out there an’ start decorating. I got to be going.”

He stops in outer doorway. He hears the sigh behind him. “We got no things,” she says.

Stubby Pringle looks off at last low ridge top hiding valley and schoolhouse. “Reckon I still got a bit of time,” he says. “They’ll be whooping it mighty late.” He sheds hat and gloves and bandannas and jacket. He asks for things and the woman jumps to get those few of them she has. He tells her what to do and she does. He does plenty himself. With this and with that magic wonders arrive. He is Stubby Pringle, born to poverty, weaned on nothing, fed on less, raised to make do with least possible and make the most of that. Pinto beans strung on thread brighten tree in firelight. Strips of one bandanna bob in bows on branch ends like gay red flowers. Snippets of fleece from jacket lining sprinkled over tree glisten like fresh fall of 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 stops in open doorway. Somehow he knows without turning head two tears are sliding down 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 stands in doorway looking out at last ridge top that hides valley and schoolhouse. “I reckon I still got a mite more time,” he says. “Likely they’ll be sashaying around till it’s most morning.”

Stubby Pringle strides on out, leaving door open. He strides back, closing door with heel behind him. In one hand he has paper parcel. In other hand he has chunk of good pine wood. He tosses parcel into lap folds of woman’s apron.

“There’s the making for a right cute dress for the girl. Needle-and-threader like you can whip it up in no time. I’ll just whittle me out a little something for the boy.”

Woman sits in rocking chair, sewing. Her fingers fly, stitch-stitch-stitch. A dress shapes under her hands, small and flounced and with little puff sleeves, fine dress for smiles and joy of living.

On a stool nearby sits Stubby Pringle, piece of good pine wood in one hand, knife in other hand, splendid seven-bladed knife he always has with him. He is Stubby Pringle, born with feel for knives in hand, weaned on emery wheel, fed on shavings, raised to whittle his way through the world. There in his hands something is shaping. A horse. Flop-eared head is high on ewe neck, stretched out, sniffing wind, snorting into distance. It is a horse fit to carry a waist-high boy to the edge of eternity and back.

He closes knife and puts it in pocket. Dress is finished in woman’s lap. She sits slumped deep in rocking chair and she too snores slow and steady. Stubby Pringle takes dress and puts it under tree. He sets wooden horse beside it.

Quietly he strides out and back. He carries box of fancy chocolates. Gently he lays this in lap of woman. He stands by big old bed and looks down at snoring man. “Ain’t fair to forget him,” he says. He takes seven-bladed knife from pocket and lays this on blanket on bed. Swift as sliding moon shadow he is gone.

High high up frosty clouds scuttle across face of moon. Wind whips through topmost tips of tall pines. Firm in saddle is Stubby Pringle, out on prowl, ready to howl, heading for the dance at the schoolhouse in the valley. He is ten feet tall and the roan is gigantic.

Hold it, Stubby. Do you see what is happening on out there in the valley? Tiny lights that are schoolhouse windows are winking out. Tiny dark shapes are wagons pulling away.

Moon is dropping down the sky. What is that moving slow and lonesome up snow-covered mountainside? It is a flop-eared ewe-necked cat-hipped roan, just that, nothing more, small cow pony, worn and weary. Slumped in saddle is Stubby Pringle, head down, shoulders sagged. He is just another of far-scattered poorly paid patched-clothes cowhands who inhabit these parts. Just that. And something more. He is the biggest thing there is in the whole wide roster of the human race. He is a man who has given of himself, of what little he has and is, to bring smiles and joy of living to others along the way.

He jogs along, thinking of none of this. He is thinking of dances undanced, of floorboards unstomped, of willing women left unwhirled.

Half-asleep in saddle he is thinking now of bygone Christmas seasons and of a boy born to poverty poring in flicker of firelight over ragged old Christmas picture book. And suddenly he hears something. The tinkle of sleigh bells.

Sleigh bells?

Yes, I am telling this straight. And suddenly he sees something. Antlered heads high, frosty breath steaming, bodies rushing swift and silent, seeming to leap in air along needing no touch of ground beneath. Reindeer? Yes. Reindeer swooping down and leaping past and rising again. And with them, hard on their heels, almost lost in swirling snow mist of their passing, something big and bulky with runners like sleigh and flash of white beard whipping in wind and crack of long whip snapping.

Out of dark night ahead, mingled with moan of wind, comes a long-drawn chuckle, jolly and cheery and full of smiles and joy of living. And with it long-drawn words.

“We-e-e-l-l-l do-o-o-ne, pa-a-rtner!”

Stubby Pringle shakes his head. “An’ I didn’t have a single drink,” he says. But he is cowman through to the marrow. He can’t ride on without stopping to check anything strange on the range. He swings down. He fumbles in jacket pocket and finds a match. Strikes it. Unmistakable. Reindeer tracks.

Stubby Pringle stretches up tall. Stubby Pringle swings into saddle. Roan needs no slap of spurs to unleash strength in surge up steep mountainside. It knows. There in saddle once more is Stubby Pringle, moonstruck maverick of the Triple X, hard-proved hard-boned cowhand, ten feet tall, needing horse gigantic, with wings, iron-boned and dynamite-fueled, to take him home to little line cabin and some few winks of sleep before another day’s hard work.

Stubby Pringle slips into cold clammy bunk.

“Was it worth all that riding?” comes voice of Old Jake Hanlon from another bunk on other wall.

“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. That blurry eyes half asleep can see strange things. That deer make tracks like those of reindeer. That wind sighing 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, spoke to him that night out on wind-whipped winter-torn mountainside.

“We-e-e-l-l-l do-o-o-ne, pa-a-rtner!”

Condensed from a short story by Jack Schaefer that appeared in the December 1981 issue of Reader’s Digest.