A HAPPY CHRISTMAS
Dear Mrs. Coney,—
My happy Christmas resulted from the ex-sheriff of this county being snowbound here. It seems that persons who come from a lower altitude to this country frequently become bewildered, especially if in poor health, leave the train at any stop and wander off into the hills, sometimes dying before they are found. The ex-sheriff cited a case, that of a young German who was returning from the Philippines, where he had been discharged after the war. He was the only child of his widowed mother, who has a ranch a few miles from here. No one knew he was coming home. One day the cook belonging to the camp of a construction gang went hunting and came back running, wild with horror. He had found the body of a man. The coroner and the sheriff were notified, and next morning went out for the body, but the wolves had almost destroyed it. High up in a willow, under which the poor man had lain down to die, they saw a small bundle tied in a red bandanna and fast to a branch. They found a letter addressed to whoever should find it, saying that the body was that of Benny Louderer and giving them directions how to spare his poor old mother the awful knowledge of how he died. Also there was a letter to his mother asking her not to grieve for him and to keep their days faithfully. “Their days,” I afterward learned, were anniversaries which they had always kept, to which was added “Benny’s day.”
Poor boy! When he realized that death was near his every thought was for the mother. Well, they followed his wishes, and the casket containing the bare, gnawed bones was sealed and never opened. And to this day poor Mrs. Louderer thinks her boy died of some fever while yet aboard the transport. The manner of his death has been kept so secret that I am the only one who has heard it.
I was so sorry for the poor mother that I resolved to visit her the first opportunity I had. I am at liberty to go where I please when there is no one to cook for. So, when the men left, a few days later, I took Jerrine and rode over to the Louderer ranch. I had never seen Mrs. Louderer and it happened to be “Benny’s day” that I blundered in upon. I found her to be a dear old German woman living all alone, the people who do the work on the ranch living in another house two miles away. She had been weeping for hours when I got there, but in accordance with her custom on the many anniversaries, she had a real feast prepared, although no one had been bidden.
She says that God always sends her guests, but that was the first time she had had a little girl. She had a little daughter once herself, little Gretchen, but all that was left was a sweet memory and a pitifully small mound on the ranch, quite near the house, where Benny and Gretchen are at rest beside “der fader, Herr Louderer.”
She is such a dear old lady! She made us so welcome and she is so entertaining. All the remainder of the day we listened to stories of her children, looked at her pictures, and Jerrine had a lovely time with a wonderful wooden doll that they had brought with them from Germany. Mrs. Louderer forgot to weep in recalling her childhood days and showing us her treasures. And then our feast,—for it was verily a feast. We had goose and it was so delicious. I couldn’t tell you half the good things any more than I could have eaten some of all of them.
We sat talking until far into the night, and she asked me how I was going to spend Christmas. I told her, “Probably in being homesick.” She said that would never do and suggested that we spend it together. She said it was one of their special days and that the only happiness left her was inmaking some one else happy; so she had thought of cooking some nice things and going to as many sheep camps as she could, taking with her the good things to the poor exiles, the sheep-herders. I liked the plan and was glad to agree, but I never dreamed I should have so lovely a time. When the queer old wooden clock announced two we went to bed.
I left quite early the next morning with my head full of Christmas plans. You may not know, but cattle-men and sheep-men cordially hate each other. Mr. Stewart is a cattle-man, and so I didn’t mention my Christmas plans to him. I saved all the butter I could spare for the sheep-herders; they never have any. That and some jars of gooseberry jelly was all I could give them. I cooked plenty for the people here, and two days before Christmas I had a chance to go down to Mrs. Louderer’s in a buggy, so we went. We found her up to her ears in cooking, and such sights and smells I could never describe. She was so glad I came early, for she needed help. I never worked so hard in my life or had a pleasanter time.
Mrs. Louderer had sent a man out several days before to find out how many camps there were and where they were located. There were twelve camps and that means twenty-four men. We roasted six geese, boiled three small hams and three hens. We had besides several meat-loaves and links of sausage. We had twelve large loaves of the best rye bread; a small tub of doughnuts; twelve coffee-cakes, more to be called fruit-cakes, and also a quantity of little cakes with seeds, nuts, and fruit in them,—so pretty to look at and so good to taste. These had a thick coat of icing, some brown, some pink, some white. I had thirteen pounds of butter and six pint jars of jelly, so we melted the jelly and poured it into twelve glasses.
The plan was, to start real early Christmas Eve morning, make our circuit of camps, and wind up the day at Frau O’Shaughnessy’s to spend the night. Yes, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy is Irish,—as Irish as the pigs in Dublin. Before it was day the man came to feed and to get our horses ready. We were up betimes and had breakfast. The last speck was wiped from the shining stove, the kitchen floor was scrubbed, and the last small thing put in order. The man had four horses harnessed and hitched to the sled, on which was placed a wagon-box filled with straw, hot rocks, and blankets. Our twelve apostles—that is what we called our twelve boxes—were lifted in and tied firmly into place. Then we clambered in and away we went. Mrs. Louderer drove, and Tam O’Shanter and Paul Revere were snails compared to us. We didn’t follow any road either, but went sweeping along across country. No one else in the world could have done it unless they were drunk. We went careening along hill-sides without even slacking the trot. Occasionally we struck a particularly stubborn bunch of sagebrush and even the sled-runners would jump up into the air. We didn’t stop to light, but hit the earth several feet in advance of where we left it. Luck was with us, though. I hardly expected to get through with my head unbroken, but not even a glass was cracked.
It would have done your heart good to see the sheep-men. They were all delighted, and when you consider that they live solely on canned corn and tomatoes, beans, salt pork, and coffee, you can fancy what they thought of their treat. They have mutton when it is fit to eat, but that is certainly not in winter. One man at each camp does the cooking and the other herds. It doesn’t make any difference if the cook never cooked before, and most of them never did. At one camp, where we stopped for dinner, they had a most interesting collection of fossils. After delivering our last “apostle,” we turned our faces toward Frau O’Shaughnessy’s, and got there just in time for supper.
Mrs. O’Shaughnessy is a widow, too, and has quite an interesting story. She is a dumpy little woman whose small nose seems to be smelling the stars, it is so tip-tilted. She has the merriest blue eyes and the quickest wit. It is really worth a severe bumping just to be welcomed by her. It was so warm and cozy in her low little cabin. She had her table set for supper, but she laid plates for us and put before us a beautifully roasted chicken. Thrifty Mrs. Louderer thought it should have been saved until next day, so she said to Frau O’Shaughnessy, “We hate to eat your hen, best you save her till tomorrow.” But Mrs. O’Shaughnessy answered, “Oh, ‘t is no mather, ‘t is an ould hin she was annyway.” So we enjoyed the “ould hin,” which was brown, juicy, and tender.
We had a late breakfast Christmas morning, but before we were through Mr. Stewart came. We had planned to spend the day with Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, but he didn’t approve of our going into the sheep district, so when he found where we had gone he came after us. Mrs. Louderer and he are old acquaintances and he bosses her around like he tries to boss me. Before we left, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy’s married daughter came, so we knew she would not be lonely.
It was almost one o’clock when we got home, but all hands helped and I had plenty cooked anyway, so we soon had a good dinner on the table. Mr. Stewart had prepared a Christmas box for Jerrine and me. He doesn’t approve of white waists in the winter. I had worn one at the wedding and he felt personally aggrieved. For me in the box were two dresses, that is, the material to make them. One is a brown and red checked, and the other green with a white fleck in, both outing flannel. For Jerrine there was a pair of shoes and stockings, both stockings full of candy and nuts. He is very bluff in manner, but he is really the kindest person.
Mrs. Louderer stayed until New Year’s day. My Christmas was really a very happy one.
… An interesting day on this ranch is the day the cattle are named. If Mr. Stewart had children he would as soon think of leaving them unnamed as to let a “beastie” go without a name.
On the day they vaccinated he came into the kitchen and told me he would need me to help him name the “critters.” So he and I “assembled” in a safe place and took turns naming the calves. As fast as a calf was vaccinated it was run out of the chute and he or I called out a name for it and it was booked that way.
The first two he named were the “Duke of Monmouth” and the “Duke of Montrose.” I called my first “Oliver Cromwell” and “John Fox.” The poor “mon” had to have revenge, so the next ugly, scrawny little beast he called the “Poop of Roome.” And it was a heifer calf, too.
This morning I had the startling news that the “Poop” had eaten too much alfalfa and was all “swellit oop,” and, moreover, he had “stealit it.” I don’t know which is the more astonishing, that the Pope has stolen alfalfa, or that he has eaten it.
We have a swell lot of names, but I am not sure I could tell you which is “Bloody Mary,” or which is “Elizabeth,” or, indeed, which is which of any of them.