Joe, his wife Pam, and their 8-year-old son Jimmy moved to New Mexico from Georgia about a month ago. Joe had started a new job with a local employer just after Thanksgiving. He and Pam were excited to get out West and out of the big city. They both had grown up in small towns and wanted the same for Jimmy.
Jimmy, on the other hand, was not excited at all. It was his first move, and he didn't understand why they had to move in the first place. He didn't like leaving all his friends behind; he hated his new school because the kids picked on him for his southern accent. The only good thing in his world right now was his little dog, Scutter, who was always by his side. Jimmy was really unhappy.
Christmas vacation came, and it was a relief to Jimmy not to have to go to school for a week. Christmas Eve morning found him outside playing fetch with Scutter when a group of kids bicycled past the house; one hollered "HILLBILLY!" as they went by. Jimmy went to the back of the house to get out of sight.
There he sadly sat, poking a stick in the dirt and throwing twigs for Scutter, who happily brought them back for another toss. His belly sort of ached when he thought back to last Christmas when he'd been at his grandparent's house with all his cousins. It was the best Christmas ever! This Christmas was going to be terrible.
Pam was at the sink looking out the window as she began preparations for Christmas Eve dinner, which was always a baked ham and yams, her family's tradition. "Jimmy is so unhappy, Joe. I thought he'd be getting more settled in by now. What can we do special for him?" "I heard it snowed really heavy up on the mountain. Let's go for a drive and maybe find someplace to sled." "Oh! He'd love that! He's never seen more than an inch or two of snow. I'll pack a lunch real quick, and let's go. We need to be back by five to get supper ready. You go tell him."
When Joe told Jimmy, Jimmy smiled for the first time in days then it turned to a frown. "Dad, we don't have a sled," Jimmy mumbled sadly. "We don't need a fancy sled! We have all these cardboard boxes from moving. They make great sleds, the best around." "Yeah, right." was Jimmy's dejected response.
In short order, they had Joe's little Ford ranger loaded with a few flattened cardboard boxes and a cooler of soda and sandwiches, then the three of them squeezed into the cab along with Scutter, and they headed out. Just out of town, the road started a steep climb up the mountain, and it wasn't very many miles before they came to snow dusting the pines.
"Look, Jimmy snow!" Pam said. "There's not much of it. Not enough to sled," was his abject response. "There will be. We'll keep going till we find enough," Joe promised. They drove along, and the snow got deeper by the mile. As Jimmy looked out the window, he admitted to himself that it was pretty. He started getting a weird, good sort of tingle in his belly as he looked out at the snow-covered pines.
His dad suddenly hit the brakes coming around a sharp curve, and his mom exclaimed, "Oh my gosh! Jimmy, look!" Out the windshield, he saw elk crossing the road and moving slowly up the hillside through the pines. And it wasn't just a couple of elk like he'd seen around town. It was hundreds of elk!
Joe shut the engine off, and they all watched in silent wonder. Even Scutter was staring out in amazement. Pam glanced over her shoulder at Jimmy and smiled. Jimmy was smiling. Finally. It took five minutes for the herd to cross the road and out of sight over the ridge. "That was so cool!" Jimmy said quietly, trying to hide his excitement.
As they continued down the road, the snow kept getting deeper until it was almost a foot deep. "Isn't there enough snow to sled now, dad?" Jimmy asked. "Yep, but now we have to find a hillside with no trees. Don't want to crash into a tree!"
"But there are trees everywhere," Jimmy observed, looking into the deep stand of Ponderosa pine surrounding them. "We'll keep going till we find a place. There's the perfect sledding hill somewhere up here!" Joe proclaimed.
On they went until they suddenly came out of the forest into a vast open area that went on for miles rolling off in the distance. "WOW!" They all exclaimed together as they gazed over the snow-covered landscape. "Look, more elk way out there! And hills with no trees!" Jimmy said excitedly. "But it's a long walk out to a hill steep enough to sled on," said Joe. "We'll go on a bit farther and find one closer to the road." Pam looked concerned, "Are you sure, honey? The snow is getting pretty deep here."
Joe looked confident, "Just a bit farther. I see the land sort of sloping towards the road up there."
And on they went. A few miles further, they passed a ranch sign and a small road turning off. It was also the last of the previous tracks on the road. A mile further, the road suddenly dipped and turned, and the truck slowed to a stop in a deep drift. "Tell me we aren't stuck," Pam said. Joe tried rocking the truck forward and back, but the only movement was spinning tires. "We're stuck," Joe said quietly. "What are we going to do, Joe? Can we dig it out?" Pam asked. "I didn't bring a shovel. I should have, but I was in a hurry. I forgot."
"OH! Joe!" Pam cried. Jimmy sat glumly staring out the window and didn't say a word. It figured something like this would happen, he thought. Joe said, "I'll walk back to that ranch road we saw and get some help. It can't be more than a mile or so". "We’re coming with you; we’re not staying by ourselves out here,” Pam said while opening her door.
The three of them set off walking back the way they had come. Pam and Joe tried to walk in the tracks of the little Ford Ranger, but the tires were just a bit too narrow for adult-sized feet. They gave up and walked in the virgin snow halfway to their knees. On the other hand, Jimmy and Scutter traveled along just fine in the ruts. Scutter was having a great time running up and down the deep tracks like he was a bobsled. It made everyone grin as he kept up his antics and their spirits as they trudged along. No one talked; they just walked.
Finally, they got to where the ranch road turned off, and the walking was much easier as there were wider tracks from a bigger truck. The road went through the trees a bit, then dropped down a steep hill into a wide open valley where they could see houses and barns about a half-mile distance. One of the houses had smoke coming out of the chimney. Pam broke the silence, “What a relief someone is home, Joe!” “Let’s hope they’re friendly,” he replied.
Just moments later, they could hear the barking of dogs in the distance, and a minute or so later, a truck fired up; they could hear the engine’s rumble and see the light blue cloud of exhaust rising into the cold air. Then it headed towards them down the long drive.
They came to a cattle guard covered in no trespassing signs.
“I’m worried, Joe,” Pam said nervously. Joe didn’t say anything. He was a bit nervous but didn’t want Pam and Jimmy to know. As the old beat-up truck got closer, they could see an old man in a beat-up black hat and grey beard glowering through the frosty windshield. The truck pulled to a stop on their side of the cattle guard, and the window slowly went down.
“I’m guessing you folks are stuck in the snow down at the big dip,” the old man growled in a wind-torn voice. “Yes, sir, we are,” Joe replied. “What are you doing up here?” He growled. “We came to see the snow and find a place for my son to do some sledding for the first time. We live down in town but just moved there from Georgia.” The man huffed, “Georgia, huh... Get in the truck.” The man turned the truck around and headed back towards the houses.
It was a silent couple of minutes ride until they pulled up in front of a house and barn surrounded by five jumping and barking dogs of all sizes. “Well, I’ll change my boots and put my dogs up, and we’ll go see about getting you pulled out. Sit tight here and warm your feet. I’ll leave the truck running for you.” the old man grumbled as he got out and waded through the crowd of dogs. He whistled once loudly, and they all fell in line behind him, following him into the house yard.
“That man is scary!” announced Jimmy. “He’s ok, Jimmy. I think he’s just a bit cranky about being bothered on a holiday.” Joe told him. Pam nodded, “He’s going to help us, and that’s the important thing,”
The man was gone a while, and just as Pam said, “I wonder what’s taking him so long?” He came out of the house carrying a thermos and a stack of Styrofoam cups and set them on the hood of the truck, waving them out.
As they climbed out, he was pouring hot chocolate into the cups lined out on the warm hood of the truck. “I’d invite ya into the house, but my dogs wouldn’t like that. Don’t get many visitors ‘cept when someone gets stuck.” The old man said as he handed each of them a steaming cup of chocolate. In unison, they all blew on their cup and then took a sip. Delight lit all their faces.
“That’s GOOD!” exclaimed Jimmy. “What do you say, Jimmy?” prompted Pam. “Thank you,” Jimmy said kind of meekly. “A person shouldn’t be slow to show his gratitude, son.” The old man said, staring intently at Jimmy. Jimmy looked at both his parents, a bit confused, then figured it out for himself. “Thank you very much, sir. It’s the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.” Jimmy said with a bit more vigor in his voice and smiled.
The old man gave him a quick smile. “You’re more than welcome, son. I’m glad you appreciate it. It ain’t no powdered chocolate in an envelope. This time of year, I make it from scratch and keep a pot ready all day long. I don’t drink coffee; it makes me jumpy. I drink chocolate ‘cause it makes me happy...It's good to start the day happy."
The cloud of apprehension that had been hanging over the three of them drifted off into the bright blue winter sky.
Offering his hand, Joe said, “I’m Joe Riley. This is my wife Pam and my son Jimmy.” Taking his hand, the old man said, “Jake Brown.” He tipped his hat to Pam and said, “Pleasure to meet you, young lady.” And he then held his hand out to Jimmy. “Good to meet you, Jim.” A look of confusion crossed Jimmy’s face for a moment. “My name is Jimmy,” he announced. “Jimmy is a little boy’s name. You don’t look like any little boy to me. You appear to be a young man.” The old man said with a quick wink.
Jimmy hesitantly took the offered hand and almost pulled it back when he felt how rough and rugged it was, kind of how he thought an alligator’s skin would feel. Their eyes met and sparkled over the rim of their cups as they each took a sip.
“Do you live here alone?” asked Pam. “No, ma’am. I have a wife who puts up with me, but she’s out of state visiting my son and his family for the holidays. I’m here keeping the home fire burning and doing chores. Someone always has to be here.” “Oh, that’s too bad you’re here all alone.” She replied. “No, it’s not. I enjoy it.”
Changing the subject, he said, “So, y'all came up here to sled?” “Yes, but the plan hasn’t worked out too well,” said Joe. “Well, I think we can fix that. See that hill right there? That’s the best sledding hill around.” The old man was pointing to the gentle slope of the valley. “It does look good,” said Joe. “Can we go sled, dad?” Jimmy asked excitedly. “Sure, son, as soon as we get the truck. Remember, the sleds are in there.” “Oh yea, I forgot,” Jimmy said with a frown. They all sipped the dregs of their chocolate, and the old man piped up. “I can help you out with a sled right now, Jim.” “Really, you have a sled!?” “Best sled around. Follow me,” he said, setting his cup on the truck.
They all followed after the old man to the barn, where he slid the door open and went into a shop room. There they watched as he dug around in a couple of bins muttering to himself, finally letting out an “ah ha” and pulling an old sleeve of rubber out and holding it. “What is that?” queried Jimmy. “Best sled ever.” “That??” Jimmy asked with doubt. “Watch and see, young man.” The old man hooked a red hose to it, and in seconds it was a big, fat inner tube. “WOW! COOL!” exclaimed Jimmy. “Let’s go, mom and dad!” The old man said, “Just walk up that slope as far as you want and slide down. It will take a couple of runs, but soon you’ll be going like lightning,” he promised. “LET’S GO!” Jimmy hollered.
The old man watched the young family walk up the hillside, and Jimmy made his first try as his dad pushed him through the deep snow. It was slow. But the second try was better.
And the third, he was starting to really go! “Woo-hoo, Jimmy!” yelled his mom as he slid past. “It’s getting good now!” Jimmy yelled. “Try it, dad!” Both Joe and Pam both took a turn on the tube, packing the run more, making it slicker and faster. Little Scutter ran alongside up and down, having a hard time in the deep snow but having the time of his life. They took a couple of runs double and had a big crash as Pam fell off the back, leaving Jimmy to cartwheel into the snow. He came up laughing like a hyena as Scutter jumped on and around him.
The old man watched and grinned as he sipped his second cup of happiness.
After a few minutes, the old man suggested to Joe that they go see about getting his truck unstuck. “Come on!” Joe hollered to Pam and Jimmy. “We’re going to get the truck out” “Awe, do we hafta’ dad? It's just getting good!” Jimmy moaned. “Y’all can stay here.” Jake said, “It won’t take but a few minutes. If you get cold, just sit there on the porch in the sun and warm up.” Joe and the old man got in the truck and headed out as Jimmy climbed the hill for another run.
It was quiet in the truck for the first few minutes until Joe spoke up. “I’m really thankful that you’re helping us. And what you did for Jimmy was really special.” “He seems to be a good boy. Cherish every moment of his youth. His, like ours, goes by too fast.” “Yes, sir.” “And I’m sure you know you made a big mistake coming up here the way you did. Unprepared.”
The old man said, giving him a hard look. “Yes, sir. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to come up here, and I just didn’t really think it through.” Joe said, excusing himself. “A spur-of-the-moment decision to go to Dairy Queen is one thing. But not coming up here in the winter. You have to be prepared if you come up here. Shovel, water, food, blankets, fire starter. You just never know what might happen. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.” “Yes, sir,” Joe said, feeling admonished as intended.
Getting Joe’s truck out was no task at all. The old man’s big truck never knew it was working as it pulled the little truck up the road out of the dip and got it turned around. They were back at the ranch just a half hour after they left, finding Pam and Jimmy standing at the corral fence next to the house.
“Are these all your horses?” Jimmy asked as they got out of the truck. “Yep, they are.” “Why do you have so many? There are eleven there.” “Some are old and don’t work anymore, some work full time for me, and some are too young to have a job yet, kinda like you.” “Work? A job? What do they do?” Jimmy asked, looking a bit confused. “They’re cowboys. They help me look after my cattle”. The old man explained. “Have you ever ridden a horse?” “I don’t think so. Have I, mom?” “No, not a real one,” Pam answered. “Do you want to?” the old man asked. “YEAH!” “Ok then, I’ll catch up Scout, and he can teach you how to ride.”
The old man pulled a short rope off the corral gate, looped it around the neck of a big sorrel horse, and tied him up under the barn's overhang. “You can pet him.” Jimmy tentatively touched the horse's shoulder. The big sorrel horse swung his head down and snuffled Jimmy’s hair causing him to jump back. “He just sees who you are. Let him smell you. When he breathes in your face, it’s his way of saying hello.” The old man explained.
Jimmy walked back up and rubbed the shoulder of the big horse, who again put his head down to smell Jimmy. Then the horse took a deep breath of his scent and blew into Jimmy’s face. “He said hello to me!” Jimmy exclaimed. “Ok, now you have to brush him before you can ride him.” The old man instructed. “Have to get the dirt off him where the saddle sits so it doesn’t rub him sore.” He said, handing Jimmy a brush. “You brush what you can reach, and I’ll do the rest.” The old man said. Pam and Joe watched the scene with a smile on their faces.
A few minutes later, the old man announced he was well brushed. “Ok, now we have to pick out his feet, make sure there are no rocks in there,” the old man said. “How do you do that?” Jimmy asked. “Watch and see.” The old man tapped on the horse’s leg, and the horse lifted his foot. “Wow, did you see that, dad?! He just did what Mr. Jake wanted without him saying anything.” “Most of talking to a horse is not talking with words, Jim. They feel you, you feel them, and everything sort of comes together.” “Huh, ok,” Jimmy replied, obviously a bit disbelieving. “It will come to you if you spend enough time with them.” the old man added. “It just takes time. Let me get you a saddle now. Follow me.”
The old man swung the door open to the saddle room. “WOW! Look at all those saddles and stuff!" Jimmy exclaimed as he peered into the room, which was lined with dozens of saddles and other gear hanging from the hooks and racks on the walls.
“Those are all real cowboy saddles, right?” Jimmy asked. “Yes, sir. Real cowboy saddles.” “They are so big!” “I have one here, just your size.” The old man said as he reached up to one of the top racks and pulled one down. “It’s just your size, but it’s a bit dusty; you’ll have to clean it up a bit.” He said, handing Jimmy a soft cloth. “Just wipe the dust off, and you’ll see it’s a dandy.”
Jimmy wiped the dust and exclaimed, “Look at it, mom, it’s all covered with carvings, and look at all the silver on it!” “It is beautiful.” Pam agreed. Jimmy wiped and rubbed on the saddle for a few minutes, and then the old man announced it was clean enough for a short ride. The old man set a pad on the horse’s back, lifted the saddle, and set it in place.
“Sure, are a lot of straps and ropes and stuff,” Jimmy observed. “Yep. They all have a purpose. Takes a while to figure it all out, but with a little practice, it comes easy.” The old man explained as he pulled this one and tied that one, and in moments, he was done.
“Now we need a headstall. Some folks will call it a bridle. This here is the bit. It goes in his mouth, very gently,” he said as he slipped the headstall over the horse’s ears and let the horse take the bit smoothly. “What’s that for anyway? Doesn’t it bother him with that in his mouth?” Jimmy asked. “No, he’s used to it. A horse has a gap back in his teeth just right for the bit to sit in without bothering him.” “Why do you need it?” Jimmy asked. “The bridle is one of the ways to tell the horse where to go and how fast. You’ll learn other ways as you ride more, but this is the first way you learn. Ok, up you go,” The old man said as he lifted Jimmy up and into the saddle. “Wow! I’m so high up! This is cool!” “Ok, as I was saying, the bridle helps you talk to him without words. These reins are like the phone line from your brain to his brain. You have to make sure you manage the phone lines so he can understand what you’re saying. Not too loose and not too tight, and no jerking on them. Understand?” “Yes, sir!” Jimmy said in a confident tone.
The old man led them into a small round corral and then explained to Jimmy how to hold the reins and move his hands according to where he wanted to go. Then the old man started walking around the corral, and the horse followed along behind him. Jimmy rocked along and had a smile from ear to ear. After a few circles, the old man stopped along the fence. The horse stopped behind him.
“Ok, Jim, now you get him going on your own. Give him a cluck and a squeeze with your legs. No kicking. We don’t kick horses here.” “Yes, sir.” And as he did, Scout walked off as he should. “Just keep him going in a circle. If he slows or stops, squeeze. Good job, Jim!” “Look, mom, dad, I’m riding!” His parents beamed as they watched Jimmy go around and around the small corral.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him this happy,” Pam said, turning to the old man. “Thank you, thank you so much for everything!” “It’s my pleasure.” The old man said with a sincere and deep smile. “It’s starting to get late, honey. We better think of getting home; I still have a Christmas dinner to make,” Pam said to Joe. “Yes, we better get going, but I sure hate to end his fun.” The old man looked at them and said, “Well, you all bring Jim back anytime. We’ll make a cowboy out of him.” “Really? He’d love that!” Pam said. “I would, too.” smiled the old man.
“Come on, Jimmy. We have to head home.” Joe hollered. “AWE! Do we have to?!” cried Jimmy. “Yes, we do. Mr. Jake said we can come back anytime and ride again.” “Really, Mr. Jake?!” Asked Jimmy. “You betcha, Jim. I’ll look forward to seeing you come down my road.” the old man said with his now usual grin as he lifted Jimmy down from the saddle. He then quickly unbuckled the breast collar and rear cinch, unlashed the latigo, and lifted the saddle and pad off.
As he carried the saddle to the barn, he said to Jimmy, “Get your brush and brush him down.” “Again? He didn’t get dirty.” “It’s a good habit to get into. Brushing after your ride is when you look him all over and make sure he hasn’t gotten any cuts or scrapes. On any ride, you brush your horse before and after. Understand?” “Yes, sir.” Jimmy picked up the brush and started as the old man disappeared into the barn with the saddle. But instead of putting it up on a rack, he walked right out the other side of the barn, and out of sight of his new friends, he went and put the saddle in the bed of Joe’s truck, covering it over with the cardboard 'sleds.' He then went back around to where the others were.
“All done?” he asked Jimmy. “Yes, sir. My mom did the parts I couldn’t reach.” “Good deal. Now you lead him and follow me, and we’ll put him back with his buddies.” When they got back into the corral, the old man showed Jimmy how to slip the headstall off without banging his teeth. “You make it look easy. I can’t reach that high.” “Me or someone else will always help you, Jimmy. Never forget that. There’s always someone to help you with anything.” The old man told him, looking deep into his face.
Jimmy nodded with the understanding that there was more to what he was just told than just words. Pam and Joe looked at each other and smiled. “Ok! Let’s load up!” Joe announced, and they walked to the truck.
“Jim, it was a pleasure meeting you, young man.” The old man said, holding out his hand. Not hesitating a bit this time, Jimmy took it, not noticing how rugged it was; he just felt the warmth of it. “Thank you, Mr. Jake. Thank you for the hot chocolate, thank you for the sled, thank you for getting my dad’s truck unstuck, thank you for the horse ride. Thank you for everything!” “You’re welcome, Jim. Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Jake!” Jimmy exclaimed.
Pam opened the door, Scutter bolted in, and Jimmy slid into the middle of the bench seat. She then turned to the old man. “Thank you, Mr. Brown. Thank you so much for everything! Can I give you a hug?” “You drop Mr. Brown, call me Jake, and you better give me a hug,” he said, smiling. Pam wrapped him into a big hug and whispered in his ear, “Merry Christmas, Jake,” and then slid in next to Jimmy, closing the door.
Joe had been taking it all in, waiting his turn. Then extending his hand to the old man, he said. “Thank you, Jake. Thank you very much for everything. I’m thinking that my getting stuck was the best thing that has happened in a long while.” “It may have been for me as well, Joe.” The old man said, placing his other hand on their handshake. “I put a little something there in the back of your truck for Jim.” Joe lifted the cardboard and then looked up at the old man with surprise, “Are you sure?” He asked. “Very sure, just bring him back to use it.” the old man said. “I will. You can count on that. Merry Christmas, Jake.” “Merry Christmas, Joe.”
The next day after the presents were opened and breakfast finished, Jimmy sat in his new saddle that straddled the arm of the sofa and watched a cowboy show and thought to himself...