Adapted from a story told by Charles Russell in Trails Plowed Under.
Everybody knows Charles M. Russell was one of America’s greatest cowboy artists but few know he was also a pretty good storyteller. I first read this story some forty years ago and it remains one of my favorite Christmas tales. I changed a few things but it is based on Charley’s original story.
Santa Claus sometimes makes his appearances in strange disguises.
Once upon a time there were these two cowboys named Tuffy and Jake. It was December and there wasn’t much cowboy work so they were spending the winter trapping and prospecting for gold high in the Montana mountains.
One day they were riding through a narrow canyon when a fierce blizzard hit. The wind was howling and blowing hard and the temperature began to drop. Jake later claimed he pulled out his pocket watch and looked to see what time it was and it was so cold the hands was rubbing together.
Just about the time they were about to freeze they spotted an old log shack almost hidden in the shelter of some trees.
The old building was pretty run down. It had two rooms but the roof had collapsed 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 I reckon 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 and the old cabin got pretty snug in no time at all.
Tuffy kept glancing back at that back room with the roof caved in 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, “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, did old Santy find this place after all?” He wondered.
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 then rose to his full height…..about 8 feet.
Gazing at that towering figure, those two petrified cowboys were as nervous as a couple of long-tailed tom cats in a room full of rocking chairs.
Jake reached for his Winchester, jacked in a shell and 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.
Then 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 Tombstone.
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 silver tip 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 clear. That ol’ 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, shovel 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 obviously had no family, Tuffy and Jake divvied up the gold.
The next morning the storm had passed so they wrapped the mummified remains in one of their blankets and gave him a decent burial.
It turned out to be a pretty good Christmas after all. The bear provided plenty of meat and the gold would help ‘em make it through the long winter. As every mother’s child knows, Santa Claus can work his magic in many mysterious ways.
Pen and ink by the Old Master himself, Charles Marion Russell.