Still not saying anything, each lost in their own thoughts, they eased their mounts off the ridge and down the hill to headquarters. Curly and T. J. were hands for the “R J” – the only hands. “The Roscoe John Cattle Co.” – a big name for a small ranch with a few hundred head of mother cows. John Duncan, the owner, had included his good cow horse Roscoe when naming the outfit as a young single cowboy. “After all”, he always said, “If it weren’t for him and the part he played in the early days there wouldn’t be a cattle company”. John always was one to give credit where credit was due. Yep, he sure had been a good boss. He expected no more from you than he was willing to give himself, and he knew the importance of a word of praise or a pat on the back when it was needed. Shoot, Curly and T. J. would have followed him off a cliff if he’d asked them, and there was no doubt that Mrs. Duncan and those two little boys thought he’d hung the moon. That’s what made things so gosh-darned hard now, and the reason Curly and T.J. were so silent. John had been killed a month ago.
Ever true to the code of extending your hand to your neighbor, he had ridden out on a brisk fall morning to help the neighboring outfit gather strays from their summer range before the first snows hit. Leaving Roscoe to rest, as they had finished the long drive that took their own cattle to their winter range a few days before, he chose instead a green colt that needed some hours and miles.
From the way they read the sign when they found him the next day, he must have been flat out down a slope after a cow when his colt landed wrong and went end over end, crushing John underneath him as he rolled. Although he was still alive when they brought him in, pneumonia had already set in from his night on the mountain. It’s hard to say whether it was that or the colt rolling on him that killed him. The cause of his death didn’t much matter, it was the fact that he was gone that had sure made this a pretty sorry outfit ever since.
Financially, Mary and the boys were all right. The calves had been shipped before John’s accident, the bills had been paid for the year, and with plenty of snow in the mountains already they were pretty well assured of enough run-off for good grazing in the spring. After twelve years of working side by side, Mary knew as much about the business end of the operation as John had. By calculating what they had used in prior years she knew they had enough hay put up to see them through the worst of winters, and they had developed such a good market for their calves that she wasn’t worried about finding buyers when next fall rolled around. For what she might not know about the cattle, Mary knew that she could count on Curly and T. J. The problem was that John’s death had so devastated Mary and the boys that their spirits were broken. Instead of the great love she had once felt for the ranch, she just felt numb inside, and John Jr. and Matt were hollow-eyed shadows of their former selves.
Mary looked at the boys as they sat listless in front of the fire. John Jr., 10, and the image of his dad with red hair and green eyes, and Matt, 6, with dark curly hair and doe eyes like herself, sat quietly as they had each night since their crying stopped. Like her, they were lost without John, and to top it off, tomorrow night was Christmas Eve. Christmas had always been a special holiday at the ranch, filled with laughter, song, and merriment, but without John there to share it, it would be meaningless.
Mary was especially worried about John Jr. Matt was still young enough that Mary was the most important thing in his life. John Jr., however, had idolized his father, and when he lost him it was as it he had lost part of himself. She looked at both boys, lost in their own thoughts, and spoke. “Boys, are you sure you wouldn’t like a Christmas tree? I can still have Curly or T.J. cut one for us.”
Matt looked up hopefully, but John quickly spoke up. “No Mama, it just doesn’t seem like Christmas without Daddy here.” And with that he turned back to the fire. ‘Perhaps she should have pushed the issue’, Mary thought to herself, but her heart wasn’t in it either, and she was just as happy to forego Christmas altogether. As she turned her attention back to the stove where supper was cooking, she glanced out the window to see Curly and T. J. riding into the corral.
Curly, who in reality was bald, had been with John and Mary since they married 12 years ago. A gruff and taciturn west Texan, somewhere past 50, Curly knew what a cow was thinking before she did. His oversized hands and enormous frame held a heart as big as all outdoors, and his size was matched only by his loyalty. Curly had never said much about his life before coming to the ranch, but Mary had always sensed a sadness deep within him, and only John had known that it was due to the death of his wife and son during childbirth. He had sold his own little spread in west Texas and come to Colorado seeking to escape the painful memories that greeted him everywhere he turned. John and Mary didn’t really need any help in the early days, but John had seen something in Curly that made him extend his hand and welcome Curly as a valued member of the outfit. Time had dulled and eased Curly’s pain to the point where it became bearable, but John’s death had re-honed the edges of his own grief and added its sharp sting to the grief he felt at the loss of his good friend. All of this went through Curly’s mind as he unsaddled and tended to his horse before going into the ranch house for supper.
T. J. was watching Curly rub his horse down as he went about his own chores, wishing he could share his feelings of loss over John’s death, but not knowing how to start. A gangly and awkward youth, barely past his teens, he was like a sack full of clumsy until you put him on a horse. Mounted, with a rope in his hand, he became poetry in motion. An orphan, kicked from foster home to foster home as a kid, he had come to the ranch four years ago and found a home. John and Mary and the boys had been the best thing that ever happened to him. Even Curly had been a steadfast and true friend, and a teacher. But now he felt an ache inside far beyond what he had ever felt at being an orphan; after all, he’d never known his parents. Before he could think how to start, Curly had finished with his horse and said, “C’mon kid lets go to supper”.
The two men started to the ranch house just as Mary was stepping out the back door to ring the dinner bell. With only two hands, meals had always been served in the main house – besides, Mary and John had always thought of Curly and T. J. as part of the family. In the past, meal times had always been lively gatherings with the buzz of the day’s events, news from town or other outfits, and a healthy dose of play and kidding between T. J. and the boys. Since John’s death, however, all of that had changed. These days an awkward silence reigned. Each member of this once happy group was so busy trying to deal with their own feelings that no one knew what to say to each other. Except for some brief small talk about the day’s work, and plans for the following day, most of which Mary now left up to Curly, not much was said.
As the men finished their meal, thanked Mary, and stood up to leave, she spoke up. “Curly; T. J., you know tomorrow is Christmas Eve. The boys and I have decided not to celebrate Christmas this year, but I want you to take tomorrow afternoon and Christmas day off as usual. If you’d like to go to town please feel free to take the truck – the boys and I can handle things here.” Curly and T. J. glanced at each other and then Curly replied, “Thank you ma’am, but I need to work on my saddle and T. J.’s bay gelding needs shoeing, so I think we’ll just stick around here.”
“All right then,” she replied, and then added, “We’ve been fattening that turkey for Christmas anyway, so I’ll at least make us a special Christmas Eve supper tomorrow night.”
When Curly and T. J. got to the bunkhouse not much was said for awhile until
T. J. could stand it no longer and finally blurted out, “Shoot Curly, I know that Mrs. Duncan and them kids are grieving, and I am too, but heck, it’s still Christmas, and them kids deserve to have some sort of a Christmas. I went through enough years without Christmas as a kid to know that much.”
Curly didn’t say anything for a few minutes and T. J. began to wonder if he’d heard him, but then he nodded, as if to himself and said, “Kid, you’re right, and you’ve made me realize something.” And with that they began to talk and make their plans for the following day.
Christmas Eve morning saw Curly and T. J. each ride off in a different direction, and it wasn’t until nearly supper time that Mary looked out and noticed that they were back and busy with something in the barn. Feeling that the occasion called for it even if she didn’t feel like being festive, she put on a good dress and fastened the cameo brooch that John had given her on their wedding day onto the collar, and then stepped out to ring the dinner bell.
Mary had just finished putting the food on the table when Curly and T. J. came in. After everyone was seated and the blessing had been given, Curly spoke up.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind, there’s something I’d like to say before we start. We’ve been a pretty sorry bunch around here since we lost John. We’ve all been lost without him and we’ve kept our grief to ourselves, and if you’ll forgive me saying so ma’am, we’ve been wrong. The way you handle grief is to share it, and the way you get past it is to remember the good times that you had. John taught me that.”
Curly could see that Mary looked pained, but he pressed on. “Ma’am, we can’t stop living just because John isn’t here to live life with us. And I hope you won’t think we’re out of line, but me and T. J. don’t think that he would want your or these boys not to celebrate Christmas just because he’s gone, so we’ve got something for each of you.”
T. J. stepped to the back door and came back in with a furry bundle in his arms. “Matt” he said, “this pup is for you. Your daddy was telling me not long ago that it was about time you had a dog of your own, and seeing as the Simmons’ good heeler had pups – well, here he is”.
Matt hugged the pup tight and looked up with a smile amidst his tears as he said “Thank You!” Then he buried his face in the pup’s soft fur and whispered quietly “you and me are going to be best friends.”
Then Curly pulled a small item that was wrapped in a bandana out of his pocket and handed it to John Jr. “Son”, he said as the boy opened it to reveal a small Case knife with his dad’s initials on the nameplate, “your dad gave me this several years ago when I lost my knife, and the last time we talked he told me that you had lost yours, so I think this rightly belongs to you.” Before anyone could say anything, Curly continued, “And ma’am, there’s a two-year-old filly in the barn out of old man Porter’s good King bred mare. John bought her for you this summer as your Christmas gift and Mr. Porter’s been keeping her for you all this time. I rode over today and brought her home.”
For a few minutes no one spoke, and then Mary quietly began to cry and Curly was afraid they’d really botched things. But through her tears she looked up and smiled and said, “Thank you Curly. You’re right – we can’t stop living, and I’m afraid that’s just what we’ve done.” And then she began to talk, about John and about all of the wonderful times they had shared. And one by one, each of them except John Jr. joined in with memories of special times that they had shared with John and what he’d meant to them. A lot of tears were shed that night, but there were a lot of smiles and laughter too. And four people who had been trapped inside themselves by their feelings slowly felt the pain of their loss melt away as they shared it with each other.
Mary was still concerned, however, about John Jr. He had spent the whole time just turning that knife over and over in his hand. When the meal was finished he finally spoke up.
“Mama, I know that Daddy always took a basket of things to Mr. Porter on Christmas Day. If you will get it ready, and Curly and T. J. will help me catch and saddle Roscoe, I’d like to take it to him.” No one said anything for a minute, but then Mary and Curly and T. J. each looked at each other and smiled, and each one thought to themselves that perhaps they hadn’t totally lost John after all.