Illustration by Charlie Russell.

Once upon a time there was two cowboys named Jake and Tuffy.  It was December and there wasn’t much cowboy work so they were spending the winter in the Montana mountains trapping and prospecting for gold.

They were riding through a narrow canyon when a blizzard hit. The wind was blowing hard and the temperature began to drop. Jake pulled out his pocket watch and looked at it to see what time it was and it was so cold the hands on his timepiece was rubbing together.

Just about the time they was about to freeze spotted an old log shack near the trail.

The old building was pretty run down. It had two rooms but the roof had caved in on one end. They could tell by the animal smell there hadn’t been any human inhabitants in years. The floor was strewn with pine cones and animal droppings.

“Well, it ain’t no palace,” Jake said, “but this is where we’ll be spending Christmas.”

While the storm raged outside they built a warm fire then cooked up some beans and coffee on the coals. In no time at all the room got warm and snug.

Tuffy kept glancing at that back room where the roof had collapsed and had a notion to go see what was in there but its ghostly appearance made him change his mind.

“We ain’t got any socks to hang on the fire place,” he said ruefully, “but I don’t think old Santy Claus would ever find this place in a million years anyway.”

They crawled into their bed rolls and pretty soon they were both sound asleep.

Sometime during the night Tuffy was awakened by a shuffling sound.  At first he thought it was a trade rat looking for something to swap but when he opened his eyes to take a peek, outlined against the light coming from the fireplace he saw the backside of huge figure sitting there helping himself to the bean pot.

“Say,” he pondered, “did old Santy find this place after all?”

He got out of his bedroll and walked towards the shadowy figure.

“Santy, is that you?”

The huge figure turned around and Tuffy found himself looking into the face of a huge silver tip grizzly bear.

He took a few steps backwards and whispered, “Jake, Santa Claus is here!”

That old griz rose to his full height…..about 8 feet.

Those two petrified cowboys was as nervous as a long-tailed tom cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Jake reached for his Winchester and jacked in a shell.  He fired off a round, knocking that bear down. That griz got back up and started bellering and bawling, making more noise than a bunch of jackasses in a tin barn. He was on the warpath.

Tuffy grabbed his rifle and commenced firing. Between the barking of the rifles and the squalling of that bear it was starting to sound like a Saturday night dance in Great Falls.

About the time those boys ran out of ammunition it got real quiet in the place. They lit a fire and examined the wreckage. The old griz had cashed in his chips and since the boys hadn’t had anything to eat except beans for weeks they skinned him and cut up some steaks.

The next morning things became clearer. That bear had been hibernating in that caved-in room for many a winter. The warmth of the fire made him think sleeping season was over so he sauntered out and found someone had left him a half-eaten pot of beans.

The boys decided to explore the bear’s bunkhouse and to their surprise, found the mummified carcass of an old prospector, dead for many years.

Nearby was an old cap and ball rifle, a pick and a gold pan.  The boys naturally figured the feller might have left his cache somewhere in the cabin so they searched high and low. Sure enough beneath a flat rock on the hearth of the fire place they found a buckskin pouch full of gold dust

Since the old prospector probably had no family, Tuffy and Jake divided up the gold.

It turned out to be a pretty good Christmas after all. The griz provided plenty of meat and the gold would help ‘em make it through the long winter.

Seems like ol’ Santa Clause might have found those two cowboys after all.


I ran across this story more than forty years ago in Charlie Russell’s classic book, “Trails Plowed Under.” I used to tell it to my students around Christmas time. Most remember Russell as a great artist but he was also a wonderful storyteller. I changed the names of his two cowboys so long ago I can’t remember the names he gave them and I altered the story some. Somebody “borrowed” my copy of Charlie’s book and forgot to return it. Anyway, this is really Charlie’s tale and it’s still one of my favorite Christmas stories.  MT

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