Welcome Back Christmas, Dowdy Branson

Gravel grated under Dowdy Branson’s tires as he slid the old Chevy to a stop at the curb. There he came, walking fast, the latest in a long line of vagrants Dowdy had passed before first arriving in Kalispell that morning and making his way out this December afternoon. Most of them held signs that said "Need money," "I Won’t Lie—I Need a Beer," or simply stated whatever their next destination was. This fellow’s sign wasn’t any more inventive, but Dowdy had a penchant for testing men at their word, and he had a hard time passing up any man with a sign that read, "Will work for food."

All right, thought Dowdy. Let’s see how you work. He had stopped for five or six men with identically worded signs in the past years. They were the only ones he stopped for, in fact. At least they had the audacity to suggest that they might really have the capacity for work, and trying to run a ranch at seventy-eight years old, Dowdy sure needed someone who could work. Of those he had stopped for prior to this, one arrived at the ranch, then once he found out what he had to do for a dinner and supper, he refused and asked for a ride back to town—a ride Dowdy had flatly refused him. Two others did a minor amount of work, something Dowdy could have hired twelve-year-old Johnny Rider, from down the road, to do and got better service. The other two—or three, he couldn’t remember which—had simply turned him down on the spot as soon as they realized he truly intended to put them to work instead of just handing them over a grubstake. Most people, he guessed, would rather just feel generous and be on their way than actually ask a fellow to earn his keep honestly.

The man who came up the street now was carrying a duffel bag and a bedroll—no backpack, so at least he wasn’t another of the long line of dreamers just out to see the country. He was tall and gaunt—emaciated, even. His whiskers were dark brown, and his sharp chin and hawk nose were softened by a pair of sky-blue eyes that spoke to Dowdy of a kind man. Whether he was a worker or not would be another story. But there was one good thing: this vagrant wore a cowboy hat, and to Dowdy Branson that had always been a good place to start.

First things first—Dowdy looked the fellow up and down to gage what kind of man he was. "Name’s Dowdy Branson. I got a load of hay needs bucked to the barn ’fore snow flies."

"I’m your man," said the stranger.

Already surprised that the man intended to keep up his pretense of working for food, Dowdy waited a moment for the stranger to say his name. When he didn’t, he jerked a thumb toward the back of the truck. "Hop in the back."

The stranger was young enough—no more than forty—and lithe enough he should have been able to climb over the side, but he made his way to the tailgate with a limp Dowdy hadn’t noticed before, let it down and struggled up inside. Yeah, that’s it, all right, thought Dowdy. Trying to play on my sympathies already. He chuckled as the stranger nestled up against the back of the cab, leaving the tailgate down. Pressing the gas pedal, he eased back onto the street and headed for home.

There were a number of stop lights and stop signs to be passed on the way back to Highway Ninety-Three, and Dowdy made sure to hit every one. He gave himself a good long time to get going at each one, too, allowing the stranger every chance to change his mind and jump out the back. But when they reached the highway he was still there. Hmm, Dowdy thought. That’s a point in your favor, boy. It seemed funny at the moment for Dowdy to realize he had called the man "boy." His own son, it so happened, wouldn’t have been too awful much older than the stranger if the accident with the bareback bronc hadn’t taken him just after starting college. Jody had been gone for thirty years now.

Glancing up at the somber steel sky, and knowing they had nearly another twelve miles to go before the ranch, Dowdy pulled the truck over again. It was already spitting bits of hard snow as they came to a stop, and he cursed the weather. Now he sure as day wasn’t going to get any work out of this fellow. But as long as he was willing to play the game, Dowdy could see it through too. Heck, it wasn’t him that had to walk twelve miles back to town. Still, he wouldn’t have wanted some old man to make Jody ride twelve miles out in the cold for no reason.

When the stranger leaned over to see what was up, Dowdy yelled at him, "Come on up front, son. It’s gonna get cold back there."

"You sure, sir? I don’t mind the cold."

Another point for the stranger. "No, mister, come on up here. I can’t expect you to work if you’re already froze to death when we get there."

Without another word, the stranger slid to the back, dropped down to the road and slammed the tail gate shut. Dowdy had to chuckle when it shut the first time and stayed. He hadn’t been able to shut that dang thing in less than three tries for two years.

The man came to the passenger side, jerked the door open, and got in. "I’m obliged, sir. A bit brisk out there, now you mention it."

"I don’t need the ‘sir’, friend. Just call me mister or Dowdy." He was thinking more and more that he liked this stranger. He talked like a farm boy. "So what do I call you—Stranger?"

The man laughed. "No, Mister Dowdy. Name’s Waters. Clay Waters." Dowdy held out a wrinkled, weather-beaten hand, a hand that had been bitten by horses and dogs, clawed by sagebrush and bobwire for nigh eighty years. For a few moments, Waters just stared at it, his eyes seeming surprised at the offer. Finally, he reached out and shook. That was when Dowdy noticed the man was missing his two small fingers on that hand.

Dowdy Branson was too old to worry about niceties. He pretty much said what he thought, figuring if he didn’t then he might be dead before he got the chance. "Looks like you’ve had some tough times, Clay."

Waters just nodded, then bent over to look through the windshield at the glowering sky. "Better get goin’, Mr. Dowdy. The way the sky’s shapin’ up, you’ll be wantin’ to get that hay under cover."

Dowdy chuckled. "Yeah. I don’t hold out too much hope, Clay. I got me a stove-up back from a horse wreck a few years back. I can’t buck much hay anymore." He didn’t say any more on the subject, but he was thinking that when Mister Clay Waters got a load of how much hay was lying alongside the barn he was going to suddenly have a hurt back too. The young man from Whitefish that had come to cut the hay and bale it for him hadn’t been inclined to hand labor. He had left all four tons of it lying on the ground. Dowdy had chewed away at it a bit, and he had hired Johnny Rider for an afternoon, too. He lived just a half mile away, over on Brady Lane. But a twelve-year-old couldn’t buck many more eighty pound bales of hay than a seventy-eight year-old with a crippled back. The majority of that four tons still lay where it had been dropped.

In another mile, a lonely gray building with a neon marquee over the top of it appeared on the right, and Dowdy pulled off the highway and parked in front. "Best burgers in the area," he said. "I’m not much of a cook, so I’ll buy your grub here, and you can eat it when the job’s done."

They came back out with two large burgers and two orders of fries. Neither of them had been interested in what Dowdy called "sissy sodas," so they decided to take their liquid refreshment back at the ranch.

The sky had spit a little more, but it had not decided on anything more serious by the time they turned in at the ranch gate, off of Stelle Lane. Good, thought Dowdy. Give this feller a chance to see what he can’t do.

Dowdy bypassed a white, one-story house and drove around to a big brown two-story barn. There beside it was the monstrous pile of hay, just waiting to be snowed on. And that hay had to feed a couple of horses, a twelve-year-old gelding and a five-month-old colt, through the winter. He couldn’t abide it getting moldy.

Between the two of them, Dowdy didn’t know who was the slower getting out of the truck. He kept an eye on Clay Waters, interested to see how he was reacting to the mound of work he had gotten himself into. But Waters must have been a poker player, because his face never changed.

"Don’t suppose you got any gloves on you. Or coveralls."

"I got some wool gloves," Waters said.

"Aw! Wool won’t do for this. I got a leather pair in the barn. They’re a mite wore out, but they’ll do for all the work you’ll be able to do today."

As Dowdy returned from the barn with the gloves and an even more worn-out pair of brown Carrhart coveralls, he didn’t see Waters right away. The thought flashed through his mind that maybe the younger man had seen his chance and headed for the road. Then he heard a low bark to his left. Looking over, he saw Waters bent over, looking into a dense thicket of rose bushes that grew on one side of the barn. His wife, Charlotte, had loved those roses in the spring and early summer, when their yellow blossoms painted the whole side of the barn, it seemed. How she had loved them. It was fitting that the only thing left of Charlotte—her dog—lived there now.

"Dog looks to be in a bad way," said Waters as Dowdy came up.

Dowdy nodded. For a moment his throat wouldn’t work. He swallowed a big lump. "Yeah. Durn thing. I was ridin’ ten days or so back. Took my new colt out. Frisky feller—you’ll see him after a while, out runnin’ in the pasture. Well… Somehow he got runnin’, and Maverick there was runnin’, but she wasn’t runnin’ fast enough. Dumb colt. Run right over the top of her—first hoof went right on her head. I thought maybe he killed her, but she took off a runnin’. Ran straight back home, went into them bushes. I know she must come out, sometime in the night for water. And I been leavin’ her food, but she won’t eat none of it. I think she must figure I set the colt on her."

"Strange she’d act that way so long. Dog’s usually pretty forgiving," commented Waters sadly, as he crouched back down to look in at the dog, who gave him a low growl.

"My wife, she adopted her down at the pound. They was gonna kill her next day. She’d been awful beat up by whoever had her before. They left her collar grow on her. Dang near choked her to death. Wasn’t even a year old then, but it took her a long time to get over it, and a long time before she liked me. I s’pose it was a man that done all the abuse to her."

Waters stood up, favoring his right leg, and turned to look at Dowdy. "She won’t even come to your wife now?"

Dowdy’s eyes flickered away. "Wife’s gone. She got took by cancer almost a year ago. Christmas time."

"Aw, sorry to hear about that, Mr. Dowdy. Right sorry."

Dowdy waved a hand in dismissal, mostly because his throat was too full to talk.

"Dog got along good with you for a year, though," said Waters. "Shame to have her wastin’ away like this."

"Yeah," Dowdy grunted. He took a quick swipe at his eyes. "Well, best get you on that hay ’fore the weather breaks."

He went and showed the younger man where in the barn the hay needed to be stacked, then handed him the gloves and coveralls. "Sorry about those gloves, Clay. They’ve seen their better days." But deep down he figured Waters wouldn’t get more than a ton of hay in the barn, which merited dinner anyway, and those gloves, although they had a few little holes in them, were easily good enough for a ton of hay. "I guess I might as well admit I can’t be of help here," he said then. "My back’s more than stove-up. It’s plumb shot. I gotta go feed the horses and maybe run the colt around the corral for a bit, and then I’ll be back to help you."

"That’s fine, Mr. Dowdy," said Waters. "We’ll get this pile fixed up for you."

Despite himself, Dowdy had to see how Waters worked, what with his missing fingers and gimp and all. Besides, he didn’t really need to run off yet, and it was good to have someone on the place, especially someone who sounded like he had spent time on a farm.

Waters limped to the first bale and picked it up, humping it toward the barn. Dowdy followed him into the barn. "Never did say where you was headed, young feller."

"Gotta get over to Miles City," Waters said over his shoulder. He threw the bale of hay up against the wall and turned back for more.

"Miles City, ay?" Dowdy hoped to draw more out of Waters without really sounding nosy, but the younger man didn’t seem inclined to gab. "Got a job over that way?"

"Naw. Comin’ from one," said Waters as he reached the pile of hay and picked up a second bale.

"Don’t let much grass grow under your feet," remarked Dowdy as Waters rounded the barn door again.

Waters laughed. "No sir. My sign said I’d work for food."

Dowdy followed along again, watching Clay Waters deposit the bale and go back again. How he longed to be walking along with him, hauling his own hay like the man he used to be. Should have been Jody and him here doing this together.

"Got family in Miles City, do you? Your folks there?"

"Wife," said Waters. "Little boy."

"Oh-h." Dowdy stopped following. Wife? And a little boy? With a wife and son over in Miles City, what in tarnation was Clay Waters doing clear up in Kalispell? Well, that was where his curiosity stopped. He had found himself actually liking this Clay Waters fellow. He didn’t want to find out anything now that made that change.

"Well, son, I’m goin’ over to feed them horses. I’ll be back."

With that, he headed for the pasture. On the way, he passed the rose bushes, and he couldn’t keep himself from crouching down. As he had done so many times in the past days, he tried to coax Maverick out of her self-imposed prison. She just growled quietly at him. Growled at the same time that she was wagging her tail. A lump rose in his throat. He had gone into those rose bushes on his hands and knees three different times. Each time Maverick got enough energy to go out the other side before he could reach her. He emerged scratched and bleeding. Maverick, Charlotte’s little baby, was going to die—right there in that sepulcher of roses. And there was nothing Dowdy Branson could do about it. As he stood up, a tear rolled down his cheek, and he hurriedly wiped it away. As he looked back, he caught Clay Waters watching him from the barn doorway.

As time always seemed to do, the afternoon got away from Dowdy Branson. He fed the horses, then he curried them. Then he picked their hoofs and curried them again. He walked the colt through some paces and smiled at the way the young fellow was catching on. The best horse a thousand bucks could buy, he thought. The little guy was going to be a winner. But Dowdy Branson would never see it. This would be someone else’s horse. He had five hundred bucks in his savings, and that five hundred bucks was going to buy him a truckload of whisky. Dowdy Branson intended to start drinking until he passed out, and if he woke up he would start drinking again. He would drink until he didn’t wake up anymore. It was the only way he was going to stop missing Charlotte, and the only way he could ease these aching bones. If God had taken Charlotte out of his world, he obviously had no need of Dowdy in it.

An hour and a half passed before Dowdy realized it, and he headed back for the barn as fast as he could go. Clay Waters would have long since been tuckered out and ready to move on. Even a ton of hay was twenty-six bales, and with the game leg Dowdy was convinced Waters really had he couldn’t be expected to buck much more.

Because he had left the horses at the far end of the barn, and it was much closer, Dowdy came around the back side. That was where he had left Clay Waters and nearly four tons of hay. He lurched to a stop and stared. The hay was gone!

Confounded, Dowdy recovered enough to pick up his pace. As he neared the front corner of the barn, he heard Waters crooning in a soft voice.

He found enough sense to slow his pace and then to ease an eye around the corner of the barn. There sat Clay Waters, on one final bale of hay. His face was horribly covered with bloody scratches, and his hands looked a mess as well. The gloves, of course, would have been destroyed by then. No worn-out pair of gloves could have lasted through four tons of hay. On his lap Waters was holding Charlotte’s little baby—Maverick. The mutt was as emaciated as Waters himself. Through her black and tan fur a man could probably see every bone, if he looked long enough. Dowdy cursed the tears that rolled down both cheeks. He hadn’t even seen them coming, but then, the older he got the less control he had over that kind of sissy stuff. He had to wait there while he got control of himself and swallowed the lump in his throat. As he waited, he watched Waters feed his entire hamburger to little Maverick, while he himself settled for the box of cold French fries.

It was all Dowdy could do to swallow the colossal ball of emotion he had now, but he did it, and as Maverick finished her last bite, he stepped around the barn.

Waters looked up and saw him. He started, but then eased back onto his seat as Maverick turned her head, saw Dowdy, and started madly wagging her tail.

"How in the world did you get her out of there, son?" Even as Dowdy spoke, the bloody scratches on the man’s face, and what appeared to be a bite mark on his left hand, told the story. Dowdy just hadn’t tried hard enough.

"She just needed a little coaxin’," said Waters. "Just a little extra love. I’ll tell you what—I’m thinkin’ she’s decided she wants to be your friend again."

Even as Waters spoke, Maverick came off his lap and fired up against Dowdy’s legs, her tail wagging madly, her faced pressed against her master’s coveralls. "What in the world?" Dowdy marveled. "You little vixen, you." He couldn’t hide the tears that rolled down his cheeks as he crouched and hugged the scrawny mutt to him. "That won’t ever happen again, baby. Not ever."

As Waters pushed to his feet Dowdy couldn’t see his face, but he saw the pain that wracked his skinny frame, and he saw the blood all over his hands that was mostly from the baling twine biting into it. The gloves must have gone sooner than Dowdy had figured.

Before Dowdy could say anything, Waters was lifting that one last bale of hay, and he started toward the open door of the barn. When he came out, he shut the big doors and latched them tightly. "That oughtta feed your horses through the winter, Mr. Dowdy. And no mold."

"No mold," repeated Dowdy. "How’d you do it, son? I didn’t mean for you to do all that!"

"Aw, shoot. I grew up on a farm, pardner. That wasn’t anything compared to some days we used to have when we were kids. Anyhow … I guess I’d better get on the road. That snow can’t be far off, and I got a long way to go still."

Dowdy looked up doubtfully at the sky. "Why don’t you stay here the night, Clay? You won’t make it two miles before dark. And I still owe you dinner."

Waters laughed. "Dinner! Heck, I just ate dinner. We stopped at that diner, don’t you remember? I said I’d work for food, and that’s what I did. You don’t owe me nothin’."

Tears brimmed Dowdy’s eyes, but he managed to hold them back. "How did you like those pickles? Sandy makes them himself."

Waters hesitated a moment, then said, "Those were good ones. Best pickles I’ve had in a while."

With a scoff, Dowdy drew himself up straighter. "Rum Sandy don’t put pickles in his burgers, son. He hates pickles and says they’re made by the devil."

"Oh. I’d a swore—" Waters stopped. He knew he’d been caught. "You got a nice little dog there, Mr. Dowdy. A real nice dog."

"And I owe you a dinner, son."

Waters shook his head. "I can’t stay, sir. Thanks for the offer, but I really got to be on the road." He didn’t even ask for Dowdy’s dinner, which he would gladly have given him.

"What’s the big hurry that can’t wait ’til tomorrow?" asked Dowdy.

"I promised my wife and boy I’d be home on Christmas Eve, Mr. Dowdy."

"And so?"

"So… Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve."

Dowdy Branson was stunned. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve? Oh, how Charlotte used to love this time of year. She was always baking things for the neighbors, making little snowman and Santa Claus cookies, baking pies for the most special folks, like Johnny Rider’s family. She insisted they have all the lights up even before Thanksgiving, and the manger scene out in the yard, with real sheep and a donkey they borrowed from neighbors. If she had been able to she would have even had camels out there.

This year there had been nothing. Dowdy didn’t even know it was Christmas week, much less Christmas Eve!

"Son, you ain’t gonna make it to Miles City by Christmas Eve. That’s ten hours drivin’ time. You can’t find a ride this late."

"I’ve gotta try, Mr. Dowdy. I promised ’em. I reckon you know what a promise means."

The story came out that Clay Waters had hired on with a partner to brick a furnace in a fertilizer factory in Spokane. When the job was done, his partner took both of their checks, the pickup truck they had made the trip in, and left Waters with a hotel bill he couldn’t pay. He stayed and worked off the bill by cleaning windows around town, then started on what turned out to so far be a two-week marathon on his way back to Miles City. He knew there would be no presents for his wife and son this year, but he had wanted so bad to at least be there with them.

"I’ve really got to try, Mr. Dowdy. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kindness, but I’ve gotta try to get home for Christmas Eve," said Waters at last.

"I need one more favor before you go, then," said Dowdy with a sigh.

Waters hesitated only a second. "Sure. What is it?"

Dowdy smiled. "Could you take Maverick to the truck for me? I’d like to get her to the vet. I can at least drop you off in town. It’ll be easier to find a ride from there."

"Sure, Mr. Dowdy. I appreciate it."

Dowdy went inside while Waters picked up and carried the flop-eared black dog to the truck. Dowdy’s heart felt lighter than it had been all year. It was almost as if Charlotte was back. He could feel her presence in the air. He grabbed four cans of dog food, went to the freezer and removed a plastic baggie, made a quick phone call to Johnny Rider then locked the house up tight.

Outside, he climbed into the truck and nonchalantly laid the dog food on the seat. When they reached town, they stopped at the first convenience store—ironically the local Maverick—and Dowdy filled up with gas, then came out lugging two gigantic mugs of coffee, one of which he nonchalantly handed to Waters.

As they drove out what appeared to be the southern edge of town they passed a building with a sign that said Ashley Creek Animal Clinic. It was the third such business they had gone by, and it seemed to be still open. Waters turned his head as they drove on. "How many vets you got here in town, Mr. Dowdy?"

"Quite a few."

Waters sat there for a few more minutes. Finally, as they continued down the highway, and even houses began to be scarce, he said, "I thought we passed a vet back there."

"We did," said Dowdy smugly. "That’s where I usually go, all right—Ashley."

"So … where you headed?"

With a smile growing on his face, Dowdy reached into his pocket, saying, "I just called the boy down the road, and he’s gonna feed the horses for the next two days. This," he said, drawing the little plastic baggie from his pocket, "was gonna be my whisky money—five hundred bucks. Now it’s gonna buy Christmas presents for that wife and boy of yours.

"Where am I headed?" he echoed Waters’ question. "Why, I’m headed for Miles City. Where you headed?"