I first read this story in the Readers’ Digest about 1982. It stuck with me over the years. Originally published in 1964, it was picked up by the Readers’ Digest and since has been re-published twice in Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. I have searched to no avail to find a verbatim copy. This version is true to the original, though not all the words are the author’s.
Over a century ago, in the 1890s, the west was still a pretty wild place. Settlers had followed the frontiersmen, but the land was sparsely occupied, and towns were few and far between. Cowboys still worked on ranches, driving cattle in the summer over well-worn trails to the stockyards where they were loaded on trains to Chicago, Oklahoma City and other cattle towns. During the winter, these same cowboys lived a life of isolation on the ranches, tending to the cattle through the cold snows, only rarely going to town.
One of these cowboys was Stubby Pringle, a young man of 18 or so. He was called Stubby because he was short. Stubby was one of those perpetually happy people, always a smile on his face and the first to offer a hand to a stranger. Despite his short stature, Stubby had a way with the girls and loved to go to town every chance he got. But Stubby was also a good cow hand. He never shirked his duties and would help another cowboy even after his own chores were finished.
One cold, lonely December on the plains of central Wyoming, Stubby was looking forward to December 24. The town always put on a Christmas Eve dance and Stubby had been planning to go for several weeks. It was the highlight of Christmas for him. Christmas day was just another day to cowboys. The cattle still needed to be watered and fed, calves got lost and had to be found, and there was plenty to do. For a few hours, though, Stubby could forget all that and twirl a young lady or two at the dance. He had his eye on one in particular, and, truth be told, she was looking forward to seeing Stubby as much as he was looking forward to seeing her.
“What d’ya wanna go to town, fer?” Jake teased him. Jake was one of the old cow hands, a rough man who had spent many more than his share of years in the saddle and sleeping on the ground. “You know you can’t leave here till your chores are done,” Jake went on. “And by the time you get to town, it’ll be near 9:00. You’ll have a couple, maybe three hours then you got a long ride back here. You won’t be gittin’ to bed till near 3:00 a.m. and tomorrow’s another day, just like any other. You got to be up by 6:00.”
“I know,” Stubby grinned, “but it’ll be worth it.”
“No woman, nor no number of women, is worth that,” Jake snorted.
“You’re wrong, Jake,” Stubby answered. “The one I have in mind is.”
“Ahh, yer just a young fool,” Jake replied. “One day you’ll come to your senses. While you’re out there in the dark and cold on the back of a horse, I’ll be snug in my bed.”
But Stubby knew that secretly Jake was a softie. Stubby had tried to get Jake to go to the dance with him, but Jake begged off, choosing instead to needle Stubby and sleep.
On December 24, Stubby hurried through his chores so that he had time to take a cold bath and shave. Then, bundling himself up as best he could, he walked out to the stable for his horse, who looked at him quizzically. Why on earth was Stubby going out, the horse seemed to ask. We’ve done our work and it’s time for a warm stall and a bucket of oats. But Stubby swung his leg up over the saddle, dug his heels into the horse’s ribs and pulled hard on the reins. Obediently, the horse turned into the wind and moved slowly west, toward town.
Stubby hunkered down in the saddle, pulled the hat farther over his eyes and tucked his chin into the collar of his sheepskin jacket. Even with his woolen muffler wrapped around his hat, over his ears and under his chin, the wind stung his face. He patted his coat pocket one more time to make sure his Christmas gift to his young lady was there. It wasn’t much, just a piece of calico that he had crudely fashioned into a handkerchief, but it was all he had. He had wrapped it in some colored paper he had managed to scrounge up and tied it with a piece of dyed yarn. He knew she would be pleased at the thought.
As Stubby rode on, the sky darkened to a deep blue and finally black. The stars twinkled overhead, the cold, crisp air making them seem even closer. Now the wind had died down somewhat, and he could hear the snow crunch under the horse’s hooves. Stubby sunk into his own thoughts, faraway thoughts of Christmases past with his family back east. Stubby had left when he was 15 to find work in the West and to escape the mines. He hadn’t seen his family for over three years. He got letters only occasionally. He knew, though, that his parents and younger brothers and sister would be gathered around the tree this night, waiting until they could open their gifts. For Stubby, there would be no gift beyond the dance that lay before him. To Stubby, it would be the best Christmas present he could receive. Silently, he urged the horse on, and she seemed to understand, picking up her feet just a little faster.
Now the air was almost still. How long he had been able to hear the sound, Stubby didn’t know, but suddenly he became aware of the dull thud of someone chopping wood.
“Not much of an ax-man,” Stubby thought. The blows were irregular and, to his trained ear, glancing. He could tell it was coming from just behind a rise to his right.
“Best check,” he thought. “Someone is going to cut a foot off if that keeps up.” He pulled on the reins and his horse swung right. As he crested the rise, he could see a figure awkwardly swing an ax. As he moved closer, he could see it was a woman in a long coat. She stood in the light coming from the open door of a sod house, a small pile of wood beside her. She would take a couple of half-hearted strokes, then put the ax down and lean on the handle.
“At that rate, she’ll take all night,” Stubby thought. “Maybe I should stop and help her. Won’t take but a minute.”
“Evening, ma’am,” Stubby called out, so as not to frighten her. Still, she jerked at the sound of his voice and turned sharply. He could see some concern, perhaps a bit of fear, in her face, so he smiled brightly and tipped the brim of his hat.
“Can I lend a hand?” he asked, swinging his leg off the saddle without waiting for an answer. He walked to the woman and reached for the ax before she could protest.
“Well, yes, that would be nice,” she finally answered, hesitantly handing the ax to him.
Stubby hefted the ax and swung it expertly. The log gave a sharp crack and split neatly down the middle. In less than five minutes Stubby had a pile of wood that would last through Christmas day for the woman.
He handed the ax back. So far, she had said nothing. Now, as he turned to leave, she spoke. “Thank you,” she said. “We’ve been sick here, me and my two boys, and haven’t been able to chop any wood for about a week.”
“What about your husband?” Stubby asked.
She paused. Then, “He died last spring. Pneumonia, the doctor said.”
“I’m sorry,” Stubby answered. An embarrassed pause followed.
“We’re doing fine now,” the woman smiled weakly. A fit of coughing took her and Stubby knew that they weren’t doing fine.
“Why don’t you let me chop a bit more wood?” he asked. “It won’t take long and there’s plenty of time for me to get where I’m going.”
“That would be nice,” the woman replied. “I still haven’t gotten the Christmas decorations up and I can do that while you chop. That would be very nice,” she repeated.
Stubby took off his coat and laid it carefully aside. He picked up the ax and for about thirty minutes he methodically attacked the woodpile. When he was finished, there was a pile of wood that would last the family through a week of howling plains blizzard. By then the woman would be strong enough to make it. Stubby stepped inside the hut to say his goodbyes.
There was but one room. In the far corner was a crude bunk bed. Two young boys slept peacefully under thin covers. The younger, on top, had fine, straw-colored hair. The older, on the bottom, had dark hair tousled by sleep.
As he entered, the woman turned, and he could see her face clearly for the first time. Her eyes were tired but filled with gratitude. Her skin was lined with hard work and long days in the sun and wind. She held a few strands of colored paper that she was stringing over the fireplace. In a basket were a few ornaments. He saw no tree. The woman seemed to read his thoughts.
“We didn’t have time to get a tree. With the sickness and all, there just wasn’t. . . .” Her voice trailed off and she turned to hide a tear. Stubby could imagine the boys waking in the morning to no tree.
“Ma’am, it would please me if you would let me get you a tree,” he offered. “There’s a fine stand of pines about a mile back. I know I could find you a tree in no time.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t let you do that,” she protested. He could tell she was more determined than when he had offered to cut the wood, but still she wanted him to get them a tree.
“It’s no trouble at all,” he said. “You can’t have Christmas without a tree.”
Without another word Stubby turned and walked out the door, picking up the ax as he left.
It took him longer than he had planned to get a tree, but finally he found the perfect one, not too big, but nicely shaped. With a few swift strokes he felled the tree and tied it to his saddle, then began the trip back to the hut.
He knocked but got no answer. Quietly he opened the door. The woman was asleep in an old rocking chair by the fire. He could see that she had brought in a supply of the wood he’d chopped and built a nice fire. Then, no doubt exhausted, she sat down to wait for him. Now she was asleep, the ornaments untouched. The boys didn’t look as if they had moved.
Stubby looked closer at the boys. The older one seemed to be about nine, the younger maybe five or six. He shook his head in wonderment. This little family, alone here on the plains, trying to hew a living out of the earth. Farmers, most likely, he surmised, for he had seen no cattle or other livestock. Their situation made his own childhood seem like one of princely riches.
Stubby didn’t know what time it was. He guessed it to be after 10:00, maybe close to 11:00. He was still an hour from town. By the time he got there, the dance would be over. He might as well turn around and head back to the bunkhouse. At least he could get a little more sleep.
But he couldn’t go, at least not yet. He knew what had to be done. As quickly and quietly as he could, he brought in the tree and set it up in the corner. Then, taking the few decorations there were, he decorated the tree, placing a shiny star on top. He stood back and surveyed his work. A smile spread across his face, then was quickly replaced by a frown. There were no gifts! Well, he had no use for that piece of calico now. Taking it out of his pocket, he lay it softly in the woman’s lap. Then, by the light of the fire, he took his pocketknife, the one his grandfather had given him, and skillfully carved a piece of wood into a wolf, the head thrown back, howling defiance at the moon. He set that on the bunk by the younger boy.
What about the older boy? He had nothing else, nothing except. . . . Stubby took the knife out of his pocket again and held it lovingly in his hand. He watched the flames from the fire dance over the shiny blade. Stubby kept this knife in perfect condition, cleaning and oiling it after every use. It was sharpened to a razor’s edge. He ran his thumb over the keen edge, feeling it cut ever so slightly into his skin. He ran his fingers over the carved wood body, feeling the familiar ridges and grooves. Quietly, slowly, he closed the blade, hearing and feeling it snap home one last time. Then, tenderly, he laid it next to the older boy. Now it was perfect. Stubby turned and crept out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.
The moon was low on the horizon. Stubby walked to his horse and rubbed her nose. She turned and nuzzled him. “Let’s go home, girl,” he said, climbing back into the saddle.
Stubby didn’t remember much about the ride back to the ranch, other than the warm glow that seemed to surround him as the horse plodded on. The wind started up again, portending a Christmas morning storm. He knew, though, that the woman and her boys would have enough wood no matter how long the storm lasted.
As Stubby came up on the final rise he could see the bunkhouse far below in the fading moonlight. In the distance he heard the familiar ring of a cow bell. Surely, the horse picked her way down the hill right to the stable.
As Stubby slipped into the cold blankets, old Jake rolled over and spoke to him groggily. “Well, was it worth it?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Stubby replied. “It was worth every minute.”
The wind picked up. You know, I know, any darn fool knows, that wind does strange things to tired ears and cow bells in the distance can sound like sleigh bells, but Stubby swore that, as he drifted off to sleep, he heard sleigh bells and a faint voice calling to him, “Merry Christmas, Stubby, and thanks for the help.”