Christmas Eve 1896
by Jim Taylor
The old man leaned forward and began speaking. The look in his eyes and his voice kept me spellbound, and transported me back to a time long ago.......
It was along about suppertime Christmas eve when I noticed one of the calves was gone. We had them in a pen by the barn where they could get in out of the cold and somehow one of them was missing. The temperature was hovering around 10 below and figured to go colder that night. Being as Pa was sick I was looking after the stock and keeping firewood hauled up to the house, chopping ice so's we could get water for ourselves and the livestock, and trying to keep Ma from worrying herself to death. Now here we were missing a calf!
Tracks in the snow told the story. I could see where several people had come up behind the barn from the woods and slipped around into the side gate. Looked to me like three of 'em ... a big one and two smaller ones. I could see where they had led the calf back around behind the barn and toward the woods.
Light was failing fast but I figured I could track them down easily enough since they couldn't hardly hide their trail. Nights had been clear and cold with plenty of light even just by the stars. I didn't want to worry Ma none since she had her hands full with Pa and taking care of my little sisters and brothers, so I told her I was going after fresh meat. I taken Pa's Winchester 73 rifle and headed out.
The trail led into the woods and I followed along, trying not to be too noisy. I did not want cattle rustlers aware somebody was on their trail. I figured it being so cold and all they would hole up somewhere's not too far away. I didn't have a plan other than finding them. I reckoned it would sort itself out once I found them and the calf.
The tracks were easy enough to follow but after a time they kinda began to work on me. I mean, they weren't ordinary boot or shoe tracks. They looked kind of "smudged" I guess would be the word. In the failing light it was hard to see distinctly, but I could see they was odd. Wondering about it I followed on, slipping through the woods as easy as I could without making too much noise.
After an hour or so I come out into a small clearing overlooking a valley. The valley ran north and south and had 4 or 5 other little valley's and draws feeding it. There was a small stream running through it and off to the north in a sheltered spot I could see a fire. Looked to me like the rustlers had made camp and I looked over the area for the best approach. After a bit I figured if I stuck to the edge of the woods I could circle around and come in from the east side without being seen. A little planning and some luck and I reckoned I could get the drop on them before they knew I was there.
I taken my time and worked around the edge of the woods like I seen deer do many times. Half an hour later found me slipping up to their camp and so far them still none the wiser. It was still eatin' on me, them smudged tracks... and the little footprints. Could it be children? What would they be doing out here, stealing calves? I had no answers but figured I would get some when I jumped their camp.
Now you got to understand I was 16 years old and considered a growed man. I did a man's work and had a man's responsibilities. While I had never shot no body I had been in my share of fist fights and knew what it was to stick up for your own self. I wasn't looking to kill anyone but I was resolved to do whatever I had to do to get Pa's property back and make this thing right. It was my duty.
I come up the edge of the treeline and when I was about 60 feet from their camp I had a clear view of them. I was all primed and cocked and ready to go off as I slipped up, but what I saw took the fight out of me.
There were three of them alright. A girl and two youngsters. The young'uns had their bare feet wrapped in old tote sacks in place of shoes. They had different sorts of rags wrapped around them to try and keep the cold out and it appeared to me they were all starving.
The old man paused here and wiped his eyes, the memory still fresh from all those years ago.
They had killed the calf and cut meat off'n it. Some of the meat was on the fire cooking, but all of them was chewing at raw meat, like as if they was too hungry to wait til it cooked. They looked miserable. I could tell they was Indian though what tribe I did not know. Why they were out here by themselves was a mystery to me at the time.
And it puzzled me as to what I should do.
At first I was inclined to back up and slip away, back the way I came. But I couldn't do that. The girl looked about my age and the other two were just little 'uns. Then I thought, I can bring them some food and clothes and almost made up my mind to do that when I heard the Parson's words "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." and the thought went through my mind, Here we are celebrating His birth ... would He leave them out here in cold? Well! Now I was in the pickle brine for sure! We had been having a hard time of it with Pa so sick and all ... but there was room in our "inn" ... so how could I not help them?
I eased back the way I came for a couple hundred feet, then cut out into the open and started walking toward their fire, easy like. I called "Hello the camp!" to let them know someone was coming. I sure hoped they would not cut and run for it and they did not. They might have if they had not been so hungry and just gotten some fresh meat, but as it was they stood their ground.
They all looked pretty scared when I walked into the firelight. The kids were big-eyed and hid behind the girl. She offered me some of the meat that was cooking and I was pleased to find she spoke good English. I told her, "No thank you ma'am" and asked what they were doing out here in the cold. Seems her and her family were traveling south, trying to get to Oklahoma, when her folks took sick and died. She kept on heading south, having no other place to go. Her and her little sister and brother had been on their own for nigh a month and were pretty wore down.
We talked for awhile and I told her it was getting colder and she should pack up her brother and sister and come on back with me. She did not want to but eventually I convinced her. When I told her my ma was there it seemed to make up her mind.
Well, I tell you ma was fit to be tied when I come in with the three of them. She listened to my story .. I told her about the calf and tracking 'em down and how they was freezing and starving... and she started fluttering around them like a hen fussing over her chicks. And I tell you son, it was that year I really understood Christmas! See, I thought we was having a hard time up til I found those three "rustler's". Then I found out we had something we could give .. a real present.
Now you probably already figured out that young Indian girl became my wife, your great-grandma. I thought I was doing the Lord's work by helping the needy when all the time He had something more in mind.
I looked across the kitchen at the old lady standing by the stove and for a moment I was transported back in time, seeing her as a young girl. I looked back at the old man setting across from me and he smiled.
No, he said, still smiling, I never did talk to her about that calf.