~*~*~ Advent Calendar ~*~*~
* Day 22 *
Summary: An old cowpoke went riding out one bright and snow-filled day, and found something he didn’t realize he was missing.
Word Count: 1,115
A Thawing Heart
Long ago, after struggling for years with living up to his father’s expectations and failing, he’d left hearth and home to strike out on his own. Many friends having heard his vociferous laments had proclaimed, ‘Head west young man,’ so he did. The real reason had to do with ideas and dreams, but which idea or which dream had long been forgotten. Taking any job offered to earn funds to continue his travels, he became disillusioned with the citizens in the cities, big and small, along the Ohio River. There were no welcoming hands, few smiles in greeting, and more often a grumbling curse about his inefficiency adding to the complainer’s troubles.
After crossing the Mississippi River, the landscape changed; towns, and their people, were few and far between. With very few souls to spoil the grandeur of the land or the quiet of nature, solitude had become his way of life. Even when employed, as a drover or a ranch hand, he tended to work separate from the others, it was the way he preferred. If he kept telling himself, maybe someday he’d believe it.
The aches in his joints and the hollow, leathery appearance of his face bespoke the years the ‘old’ cowpoke had spent working hard from sunup to sundown throughout his life. It had always been his choice to never stay longer than a season or two at any one place, always telling the boss he wanted to “get away from the winter conditions”.
This late in the season, the ranches had already cut their workforce, bidding goodbye to the migratory cowboys; their help no longer required after the herds were delivered to market. For some reason, unlike years past, he hadn’t made his way south to warmer locations. Unable to explain why, on this day of days, he found himself stopping on a snow-covered rise, just like and yet unlike many others he’d traversed.
Finding himself a lot closer to the house than he’d anticipated, he sat astride his horse and watched. Drawing a small canvas bag tied with a string from the pocket of his heavy coat, he shook his head as his cold fingers fumbled at making the fixings of a cigarette. Looking back over the prosperous land he had traveled the past few hours, he felt admiration for the man behind the fattened herds of cattle and horses and the tall standing pine forests. And just beyond, a house unlike any he’d ever seen; yes, it was made of logs, but its design was, in and of itself, one of a kind.
In the yard between the house and barn, he spied a young family playing in the snow. Two boys were pummeling a man, presumably their father, with snowballs; some flying harmlessly, but others striking their intended target. On the porch, sitting in a rocking chair was a woman well-bundled against the cold, struggling to hold onto a smaller child wrapped in blankets.
While squirming and yelling, “Get ‘em, Adam! Get ‘em, Hoss!” the youngster looked to be doing his best to join his brothers in the fun.
The father appeared versed in strategy as he successfully defended himself with several well-aimed projectiles. The taller of the two boys left himself open to attack as he stopped to help his younger sibling clear away the remnants of a powdery ball that had exploded in his face as he’d ducked down to make his next ball of snow. The man had not planned that particular hit, but had been anticipating this moment as he pulled a small bucket from the raised deck and scooped it full of snow before heading towards his sons.
Tears slid down the cowboy’s face, many years ago this could have been his life. He could have had a family, but somewhere along the way he’d lost himself, closed off his heart. As much as he wanted to turn away and leave, he didn’t need employment that badly, he found he couldn’t. This family kept him rooted to his spot.
From the porch, the child successfully jumped from his mother’s lap and arms, only to yell, “I’ll help ya get ‘em Papa!” before falling face-first in the soft snow.
It wasn’t just the long skirts the woman wore that impeded her progress to aid her child, the boy had his own ideas. “No Mama!” he cried as he pushed away from her helping hands. “Gotta help Papa! He needs me.” And then was tunneling through a large drift of snow.
Having dumped the snow-filled bucket on his unsuspecting oldest son, the father’s attention turned to the commotion behind him. Resting his hands on his hips, he laughed uproariously at the sight of his wife trying to retrieve their child.
With a mixture of exasperation and amusement in her voice, she cried, “Benjamin, stop laughing. This isn’t funny!”
The two boys would say it was an errant snowball that struck the woman’s right shoulder, but with a gleam in her eyes, she knew otherwise and joined in the fray.
Unable to stop chuckling, her husband proclaimed, “If you could only see yourself as I do,” and retaliated almost strike for strike.
It started small, a little huff, followed by a tee hee hee, and then a guffaw, before a full laugh took hold, thus startling his horse.
Benjamin turned, raised a hand to his brow to shield his eyes prior to waving the stranger to approach.
Before nightfall, the cowpoke stowed his gear in the trunk at the foot of a bunk located in the surprisingly well-appointed bunkhouse; not one but two wood-burning stoves, on opposite sides of the room, worked to keep the men warm. Strands of garland hung from the curtained windows and a tree in the near corner held a paper angel at its height, while wrapped with strings of popcorn and dried cranberries from top to the bottom. He had joined the hands for a hearty supper and a few games of poker, sharing in their laughter and camaraderie, reminiscent of the scene he’d witnessed earlier.
The room quieted for the night as each man settled under heavy covers. Not quite ready to turn in, he’d stepped outside for one last smoke. He was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares, long, long, forgotten. Though each smell was not exclusive to the territory; together, he realized, they were uniquely the Ponderosa, as was this family and all they encompassed. Maybe this year, this time he’d stay and be a part of something bigger than himself.
~It’s only the beginning for the ‘old’ cowpoke.
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Author’s Note: My muse finally cooperated at almost the 11th hour. Taking inspiration, and claiming writer’s liberties, from “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” written by Stan Jones and sung by many, many artists.
Link to 2019 Advent Calendar – December 23:
Other Stories by this Author
- A Heart-filled Royal Flush (by BluewindFarm)
- Christmas Wishes (by BluewindFarm)
- Restoring the Heart of the Ponderosa – Part 2 (by BluewindFarm)
- Restoring the Heart of the Ponderosa – Part 1 (by BluewindFarm)
- The Christmas Visitor (by BluewindFarm)