I wanted to skip this Christmas. Mom had cancer and was having radiation treatments. Dad stayed with her, and my brother, Kipp, and I were going to spend Christmas with Uncle Hank and Aunt Clara in Arizona.
Our aunt and uncle lived in the middle of nowhere. The closest thing to a town was a little junction twelve miles away. It had a gas station, a miniature store, and a run-down cafe.
The last time it had snowed on Uncle Hank’s ranch was ten years ago, so unless there was a miracle, it wasn’t even going to look like Christmas there. Aunt Clara did have a Christmas tree. Sort of. It was one of those fake silver ones about four feet tall; a dozen red balls hung from its branches. When Kipp and I arrived, there were only four gifts under the tree—all of them small and none of them for us. We did add the few gifts we’d brought for them and each other, but it didn’t help much.
We arrived about a week before Christmas. Uncle Hank and Aunt Clara’s only child had been bucked off a horse and killed when he was fifteen. So Kipp and I had nothing to do but to stare out across the miles of brown grass, cactus, mesquite, and yucca plants.
“Some Christmas this is going to be,” Kipp muttered as we put our things away.
“Two lousy weeks here!” I grumbled, staking claim to the top bunk.
For the next hour, we lay on our bunks, feeling sorry for ourselves and wishing we were back home with Mom and Dad.
At dinner, Aunt Clara tried to visit with us, but Kipp and I still didn’t feel like talking. Uncle Hank was tired and just wanted to eat, bathe, and go to bed. After helping Aunt Clara with the dishes, that’s what we did, too.
The next morning at breakfast, Uncle Hank wiped his plate clean with a piece of toast and said, “You two boys come down to the barn when you’ve finished eating, and I’ll show you how to saddle old Bill. He’s not much of a looker, but he’ll take you where you want to go. He’s the best horse I’ve ever had.”
Bill was an old, shaggy-looking, blue-gray gelding with black-stocking feet. He looked about as exciting to ride as a rail fence, but when we walked up, he clopped over to us. Kipp held out his hand and stroked Bill’s soft muzzle.
Uncle Hank saddled Bill, carefully explaining what he was doing. Then he stripped off the saddle and blanket and made us do it while he watched. He had us each saddle Bill three times to make sure that we knew what we were doing. Then he pushed his hat back and said, “I’d like you boys to do me a favor. See the fence that runs east toward that far hill and then cuts back toward that clump of trees and brush?”
Kipp and I looked where he was pointing.
“I’d like you to ride along that fence and see if there are any breaks. Sometimes kids bring their four-wheelers and dirt bikes out this way. Occasionally they push through the fence. Sometimes they even cut the wires. If I don’t get the fence mended, I have cows all over the place. Do you two think you can handle that?”
“Sure, we can handle it,” I answered for both of us.
It was strange how Kipp and I forgot about Christmas once we got on old Bill. We felt pleased that Uncle Hank had enough confidence in us to send us out on this kind of assignment.
Most of the fence was in good shape. We made note of a few places where the wires sagged or the fence posts had been pushed over at an angle. Just before noon we were heading back toward the ranch house, having made a complete, eight-mile loop around the ranch.
The house was still more than a half-mile away when Kipp called out, “Look at that!” He pointed to a section of the fence where all five strands of wire had been cut. There were four-wheeler tire marks crisscrossing the ground. We were so intent on the hole in the fence that we didn’t pay attention to where old Bill was stepping until he flinched and started dancing strangely.
“Whoa, Bill,” Kipp called out, tugging on the reins. “What’s the matter?”
Bill whinnied. His head came up and I could feel his body grow tense as he stepped stiffly. Looking down, I discovered the danger. “Kipp,” I called out, panic in my voice, “Bill’s stepped into a bunch of barbed wire.”
Whoever had cut through the fence had tossed the cut strands into the grass. Bill had walked into them, and they tangled around his legs. The more he moved, the more the sharp barbs bit into his flesh; and the more Bill felt the prick of the barbs, the more panicked he became.
“Jacob, I can’t hold him. What if he starts to buck?”
I closed my eyes and prayed with all my might. Even before I opened my eyes, someone spoke in a calm, gentle voice. “Easy, boy. Stop your dancing, old feller.”
I felt Bill relax and saw a short, dark, wrinkled man with white hair streaked with black. He took Bill’s bridle and stroked his neck. He spoke softly in what I guessed was Spanish. While he stroked Bill with one hand, he reached into a leather pouch on his belt, pulled out some wire cutters, and began to snip at the wire tangled about the horse’s legs. Soon the old man led Bill, Kipp, and me from danger.
“Where’d you come from, Mister?” I rasped as Kipp and I slid off our mount.
He didn’t answer my question. “You are riding Hank’s best horse. How come you are riding old Bill?”
“Hank’s our uncle,” Kipp explained.
The old man nodded, gathered up the loose wire, and disappeared into the mesquite.
“Let’s follow him,” Kipp suggested after we’d seen for ourselves that there was no more wire around to cause trouble. Cautiously we led Bill through the mesquite toward a little grove of trees. We found a little board hut hunkered down under two big trees. It wasn’t much bigger than our bedroom back home. There was a small garden to one side. We knocked on the door and heard someone shuffle around inside; then the door squeaked open. There stood the short, wrinkled man, staring at us.
“We just wanted to thank you for helping us with old Bill,” I got out.
“Yeah, thanks,” Kipp joined in.
“Bill’s a good horse,” the man responded. “I saw you riding and knew the wires were down. I was afraid you’d walk into them before I could fix the fence.” He gestured toward the inside of his house. “It is time to eat. You eat too.”
It wasn’t an invitation. It was an order. Kipp and I tied Bill to a post and went inside. The old man had a stack of corn tortillas and a pot of refried beans on a rough wooden table. I’d never eaten tortillas and beans before, but they were good. He also had a special salsa that he’d made from his own garden.
At first we just ate, no one saying much of anything. Then the old man started to talk. He had a crinkly little grin and smiling eyes under his bushy gray brows. His name was Carlos Sanchez, and he’d worked since he was a boy on Uncle Hank’s ranch. Uncle Hank’s dad had owned the place back then.
Carlos didn’t have any family, and Uncle Hank had given him this place. Although he couldn’t work much anymore, occasionally he’d wander over to the ranch and do odd jobs.
It was the middle of the afternoon before Kipp and I returned to the ranch house. Aunt Clara had been worrying about us, but as soon as we told her about finding Carlos, she smiled. “He is a good man.”
The next day Kipp and I rode out to Carlos’s place again. He was working in his garden. Kipp and I gave him a hand. He told us stories of when he was a young man. He had left home when he was twelve years old to work as a ranch hand, first in Mexico and finally in Arizona. At noon we went into his little house and ate beans and tortillas again.
Kipp and I made at least one visit a day to Carlos’s place. Sometimes we’d help him work around his house. Other times we’d just sit in the shade and he’d talk. Two days before Christmas, I asked him, “What are you doing for Christmas?”
“I’m too old for Christmas. It is for children and families.”
Kipp and I were quiet as we rode Bill back to the barn. As we stripped off the bridle and saddle, I said, “Carlos can’t spend Christmas alone.”
Kipp nodded. “We thought things were rough for us. He doesn’t have anybody. And he won’t have any presents.”
“Aunt Clara,” I asked as we burst through the front door, “do you suppose we could invite Carlos over for Christmas?”
Aunt Clara sighed. “We used to invite him every year, but the last few years he hasn’t come. He says he doesn’t care for Christmas anymore.”
“Can’t we try?” Kipp pleaded. “Spending Christmas in that little hut can’t be any fun. Christmas is for everybody. This year we can be his family, and he can be ours.”
Uncle Hank thought our idea was a good one, so the next morning we went to Tucson. It took us most of the day, but when we had finished, we had two blankets, a pair of work boots, a new hat, and a basket of fruit and nuts for Carlos.
“Now, how are we going to get him to celebrate with us?” Uncle Hank asked as we drove down the dirt road to the ranch.
“Kipp and I will worry about that,” I said with a grin.
It was turning dark, but there was a bright, full moon when Kipp and I saddled old Bill and headed for Carlos’s place. As we rode up, we saw a little light from his two windows. When he opened his door, we shouted, “Merry Christmas, Carlos!” I added, “Grab a jacket—we’re going to be late.”
“Late? Late for what?”
“It’s Christmas Eve. The party’s ready to start.”
“I thought I told you that I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore.”
Kipp said, “But we can’t celebrate Christmas without you. This year we don’t have family except you, Uncle Hank, and Aunt Clara. You have to come! You can ride old Bill. We’ll walk.”
Kipp and I had to do some more fast talking, but we finally got Carlos out of his house and onto Bill; then the three of us left for the ranch house.
Aunt Clara had a stocking for each of us, bulging with candy and nuts. We sang Christmas carols, read the Christmas story from the Bible, and snacked on popcorn, candy, and apple cider. Toward the end of the evening, we gave him our gifts.
Carlos was like a little kid! He admired the blankets and fruit basket. Then he tried on his new shoes and hat and marched around the house, studying himself in the hall mirror. Big, happy tears trickled down his cheeks.
When Kipp and I took Carlos back to his place, he paused in the doorway and said, “Maybe I am still a child, because Christmas feels good tonight. Or maybe it is because I was with family.” He grinned. “Feliz Navidad, muchachos. Y muchas gracias! (Merry Christmas, boys. And many thanks!)”
Kipp and I rode Bill back to the ranch house in silence. “You know, Jacob,” Kipp said quietly, “a week ago we thought that this was going to be our worst Christmas ever.”
“Yeah,” I answered, “but this Christmas was special, and I’m going to remember it more than any other.”