White Hat




Several years ago, a reporter for the Big Timber Pioneer newspaper asked me to write a Christmas story and this is what I came up with. It appeared in a December issue of the paper toward the end of the last century. I envision the story taking place during the late years of homesteading after 1908 and before World War I somewhere in Montana.



By Jim Overstreet

Santa's Gift Featured ImageTo say that Jake snorted when Knute Olsen and Red Smith stepped into the barn would be a gross understatement; in fact, the horse blasted a trumpet of alarm. Then, with his neck arched, he rolled air through his nostrils in a low, suspicious rumble. He wouldn’t have acted much different if a mountain lion had strolled through the door instead of a pair of cowboys.

“Whoa there, Jake,” Knute commanded. “It’s only me.”

Jake, a deep blood bay with a white strip in his face and two white stockings halfway to his hocks, had been tied in a stall half asleep before the two cowboys disturbed him. Knute, one of the top hands for the Chicago and Montana Cattle Company, had broke Jake as a four-year-old and ridden him two or three times a week for the three years since. Knute considered Jake the best horse in his string. The two had developed a special rapport and Knute was more than a little insulted that this horse would snort at him under any circumstances. It galled him further that while Jake acted the fool, Smith’s nag and the packhorse looked more curious than wary.

“Aha,” Smith cackled as Knute hesitated. “Jake ain’t never seen nobody dressed up in a Sant-y suit before. I’ll probably have to ear him down so’s you can climb aboard.

Ignoring Smith, Knute said,”Easy there, Jake,” in as even a voice as he could. He already felt more than a little ridiculous in his red Santa Claus get up. It hadn’t helped that Smith had been sniggering for fifteen minutes.

“Yes sir, there Jake. Take it easy on old Knute. He ain’t right in the head these days,” Smith said, then dropped his voice to a loud whisper. “He’s in love. That little, ol’ school marm has done turned his head.”

Knute pretended he didn’t hear. He had already taken about all the abuse from Smith that he cared to and was beginning to entertain thoughts of physical violence against his co-worker.

There isn’t much that grates on a cowboy like being teased about a woman, particularly when he’s making a public fool of himself to please that woman, more particularly when he ain’t sure whether what he’s being teased about is true or not, and worse, when other damn-fool notions have been creeping into his head about that same woman, notions he ain’t really ready to admit to himself let alone anyone else.

To a man cursed with all that uncertainty, having another man, friend or not, have so much fun at your expense without taking remedial action created a significant strain on the nervous system. It had been Smith who’d declared him too skinny to be a good Santa Claus and Smith who’d found a pillow and poked it under the red coat, and Smith who’d chuckled with undisguised glee at the sight. If Knute hadn’t been afraid he’d damage the Santa suit, he’d likely have skinned his knuckles on Smith’s skull and felt much better.

“Come on Red, quit wasting time. School will be out shortly. We gotta be on time.”

Jake still sensed a modicum of danger in Knute though probably not as much from the Santa suit now as from the tension in the man. He snorted again, a low velocity cautioning this time, as Knute eased up in the stall. The horse backed away half-heartedly and braced against the halter rope as Knute slipped the bridle on. Outside, Jake ants-ed around at the end of the reins while Knute straightened his white, cotton beard and pulled his red, elf cap down tighter on his head. In view of the horse’s unease and with Smith’s prediction in mind, Knute crowded Jake up against the corral fence before he tried to mount. He paused to rub Jake’s ear, damping his own anxiety as much as the horse’s. Jake stood even when Knute had to stop and adjust the low-hanging crotch of the baggy red pants before making a second attempt to lift his leg high enough to slip his foot into the stirrup.

On horseback, Knute felt better. He took the packhorse’s lead rope from Smith, waited while the other man mounted, then headed out at a trot. Looking forward, he hoped to stay well in the lead and thereby avoid further conversation with Smith.

Mid-afternoon in mid-December, a thin layer of clouds softened the light of the low, winter sun. Eight inches of recent snow covered the ground. There were no shadows and no wind. Already, the crisp air foretold temperatures that would fall into the single digits on the thermometer by dark. They’d barely crossed out of the barnyard when Knute felt the weight of the lead rope slacken as the packhorse bumped Jake from behind. Jake goosed as the sagging halter rope brushed his hips. Knute raised the offending rope and prevented it hooking beneath his horse’s tail. Smith who’d been trying to crowd past the packhorse pulled up and chuckled.

Offended as much by the snicker as the careless goosing of the packhorse, Knute spoke sternly, “What are you doin’, Smith? Trying to get me bucked off? Now just stay back there where you can keep an eye on the pack.”

A Christmas tree strapped to the middle of the packsaddle bobbed and twisted with the motion of the horse but remained securely tied. The two men had cut the young spruce along the creek earlier that day. Little clumps of frozen white clung here and there to the boughs and occasionally a small dusting of snow filtered down onto the horse.

Knute listened to the rhythm of the horses’ hooves as they swished softly through the snow. The gray canvas panniers hanging from each side of the packsaddle made a gentle flopping sound in time with the horse’s trot. Designed to carry supplies to camp, they were practically empty now. Knute grinned, thinking that nobody could complain about the way he’d balanced the pack. The two sacks of hard candy, the largest that he had been able to find, now resting one in each pannier, seemed ridiculously small and wouldn’t have sored a Shetland pony or turned a pack if a dozen had been packed on one side and none on the other.

It was four miles to the one room school. Not far at a long trot. Knute glanced back at the Christmas tree. It had looked better before they’d cut it. He’d have preferred that it was perfect and just hoped it was good enough to please Miss Graham. Oh, she’d say she was delighted no matter what he brought, even if it were the ugliest little scrub juniper on North Slope. But he had wanted to bring her a Christmas tree that he could really be proud of, one that would brighten her eyes.

Knute smiled as he envisioned Miss Graham’s face─the smoothest, softest skin he could imagine, a cute little nose and the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Her hair was a long lustrous brown. Most of the single men within fifty miles had tried to court her and, Knute suspected, more than a few of the married ones. It had taken him most of the night to work up the nerve to ask her to dance at the Jones’ barn dance the previous summer. He remembered it all clearly.

“Miss Graham, may I have this dance?” he’d asked in his best voice after he’d rehearsed a thousand times.

“Why Mr. Olsen, I thought you’d never ask,” she’d replied. “But my name is Althea, and I’d prefer that you call me that.”

Althea, what a lovely name, he’d thought and many a time since had wished he’d been able to say so. But they’d danced in silence. Since then, he’d bid recklessly for her lunch at a box social and quietly begun helping her do chores around the schoolhouse. He reckoned he’d split a mountain of wood for her and the school that fall. Hard work or not, it had been a delightful exercise. She’d watched him render the blocks of wood into stove size chunks, then gathered and stacked them neatly in lean-to next to the schoolhouse. He liked that, the way she pitched in and worked, even when she didn’t have to.

He was always careful not to split too much wood at a time so’s he’d have an excuse to go back. Afterwards, he’d often ride with her to the Overbys homestead a mile away where she boarded. As soon as she was safely in the barn he’d ride on.  Knute liked her company but had never been able to bring himself to say so. She always acted glad to see him when he showed up, but it was hard to be certain whether she liked him or just the wood splitting. If he was ever going to marry, he figured she was the kind of woman he’d want. But what did he have to offer a woman like that. All he knew was horses and cows─a $30 a month cowboy. She deserved more. Damn!

The schoolhouse was a log building with a long, low profile against the white snow. There were already two buggies, a half dozen horses and a Model T parked in front. As Knute and Smith drew close, everyone streamed out from inside the school—all thirteen kids, Miss Graham, and seven or eight mothers and fathers. One of the smaller girls began to wave, then the others.

Would Santa Claus be dignified? No, jolly, Knute decided. He looped the packhorse’s lead around the saddle horn and waved to them with his whole arm.

“Better Ho, Ho, Sant-y,” Smith stage whispered from close behind.

You already look like a fool, Knute told himself and bellowed out a series of HO, HO, HOs.  Just then, Jake stepped in a little hole that had been hidden beneath the snow in the school yard and stumbled. He caught himself but the packhorse rammed him from behind. As the horses regained their feet, Jake felt an unfamiliar tickle and clamped his tail down on the packhorse’s lead rope and goosed forward. The packhorse, reacting to the sudden movement, slid to a halt. This begat a situation where the lead rope slid rapidly beneath the soft underside of Jake’s tail. The resulting friction created a sudden and significant flash of heat under the still clamped-down tail. Jake took offense and his instincts for self-preservation led him to immediate and violent action. His head plunged down and he jammed his front feet into the ground. His angry blat of surprise split the air. Simultaneously, his hind legs rose and kicked.

Knute Olsen, aka Santa Claus, became an innocent victim of this activity. The sudden cessation of Jake’s forward motion combined with the leverage of his rising rear-end, lifted Knute up and forward. As the cowboy cleared the saddle and began to drift toward earth, Jake reared and caught him. Stranded on Jake’s neck, well in front of the saddle, and with his legs flying out behind like a flag in a hurricane, Knute alternately clung to the horse and attempted to push himself free. In the whirl of black and white, Knute oriented himself only because Jake’s mane hair swirled up against his nose and into his eyes. All he could think was, ‘Some Santa Claus.’

For three miserable jumps, Knute could neither fall off nor regain the saddle. Then, suddenly he flipped free. The flight was short and he descended to earth too rapidly, flat on his back. Snow rose and fell, covering him with a fine layer of frozen white. For an interval everything was black. Knute had no idea how long. When he opened his eyes the lovely face of Althea Graham hovered over his. She was kneeling in the snow beside him. He could feel her warm hands around his own.

“Knute, say something. Are you all right?”

Knute could hear the concern in her voice and reveled in it. He struggled to breathe and couldn’t make words come. After a moment, he drew a deep breath and decided he didn’t hurt any where in particular.

Althea squeezed his hand again. “Tell me you’re all right.”

“I think I’m okay.” Knute’s words came out in a gasping whisper, and he struggled to sit up.             “Knute,” Althea said, suddenly stern. “When we get married, I hope you quit riding horses that buck.”

To say that Knute Olsen smiled at those words would be the grossest of understatements; in fact, he grinned a radiant moon of a smile and nearly choked laughing aloud with joy.


Copyright 1998 Jim Overstreet

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