The Merriest of Christmases to you! May God’s blessings be upon each an every one of you this blessed season and throughout the New Year!
What follows is a slightly modified chapter from my first book, PEAR FLAT PHILOSOPHIES, published by Safari Press in 1995 as part of their Classics in Big Game Hunting Series…The book is out of print, but can still be found in the trade edition. The signed and numbered limited edition (1000 total) has become collectors item.
I initially wrote the below back in about 1993, over 20 years ago. It remains one of my all time favorite stories and tales I’ve written. It is based on actual events that happenedin the early 1900’s…..
Ol’ Charley was not quite himself. He had an extra bounce in his step. His steel-blue eyes twinkled like a youngster’s who knew a secret and could not wait to tell someone. Normally the former Texas Ranger was an ornery rascal. On his “blue days” Charley reveled in being miserable and making everyone else around him feel the same way. But today he beam like a young man taking his sweetheart to the prom….
It had been about nine months since I had last to seen him. I missed his stories and I was anxious to spend time with him once again and listen to his tales of the old days when he roamed much of what had once been part of Mexico, a no man’s land betweenthe Nueces and Rio Grande, back during his “Rangering days.”
Charley’s camp was nestled alongside Dulce Creek which had served thirsty and weary pilgrims for hundreds of years prior to the old Ranger settling there. When I arrived, Charley was not only smiling but he was also humming a tune. It was not unlike a Mexican ballad. I passed it off as being a ditty Charley had picked up during the days hetraversed the sierras bordering Mexico in search of gold and lost legends or chasing banditos.
Back behind camp, the old man’s mule nibbled on rolled oats, not the normal meal for his beast of burden. Ol’ July generally had to survive on stemmy, saccatone which grew along the banks of the creek and mesquite beans. Charley dearly loved the old mule, but could never see any benefit in feeding him an excess of good groceries. Many’s the time I’d heard old Charley say, “Why if that ornery old mule ever ate good, he’d be plum ruint! Next thing you know he’d be expecting me to carry the load!”
Each year around Christmas I headed to Charley’s Rancho de los Cuernos. Big racked whitetail bucks, fattened on mesquite beans and acorns seemed to prefer the prickly pear flats near Charley’s camp and along Dulce Creek.
I had met Charley twenty-five years earlier in a cantina near Del Rio. He stood pine-tree straight tall, wearing a properly creased silver belly hat and pair of knee high boots with riding heels and spurs with Mexican peso rowels. His jeans and white shirt looked heavily starched. The red bandana around his neck a bit more comfortable. We “howdied” a bit. He looked like someone who had long ridden the river and most likely knew the local ranchers. I was looking for a place to hunt and to learn as much as I could about the area as part of my job as a wildlife biologist. I felt he might be able to provide some local insight to the area and those who owned the land.
We talked all afternoon. That evening we shared a meal of steak and whiskey. I sat enthralled listening as Charley told stories of “muy grande” bucks he had hunted, and the local human population. Late that night I followed him home to his ranch about forty miles from town. I had intended to turn around and head back to town to get a room there, but at Charley’s instance I spent the night. “There’s three empty beds in thebunkouse and you’re staying there tonight!” I had already learned during the afternoon visit one did not tell Charley, “No”.
I ended up spending a couple of days with him at his ranch, feeding and working cattle.“Cowboying” and chewing the fat, we became friends. As I prepared to leave he invited me to come back in the fall to hunt whitetails, if I would like to do so.
“Yes Sir! I’d love to!” I replied.
So it came to be … each December I had returned to visit Charley, to hunt deer and to listen for hours as the old man told tales of chasing “banditos” near the Rio Bravo when he was a young man, of hunts he had done not only in Texas and Mexico for whitetails and mule deer and also in East Africa chasing lions, Cape buffalos, leopards, elephants, black rhinos and bunch of plains game.
During his “law years” Charley had spent his time riding the vegas and canyons along the Rio Bravo in search of smugglers, bootleggers, and bandits. This in the early 1900’s. Back then you did whatever you were big enough to do, and from what I learned evidently Charley had been plenty big!
The night after I found an almost giddy Charley, he told me of one of the patrols he was on with a couple of compadres……
Charley and two fellow officers were on a high bank overlooking the Rio Grande waiting in ambush for bandits they had been tipped off would be bringing contraband across the Rio. The trio of Rangers had been laying in wait since early afternoon. It was cold and getting colder as the hours passed. The frozen ground did not make their vigil pleasant.Just before inky darkness of a moonless December night blanketed the sierras, another “Blue Norther” blew in, in true Texas blizzard fashion. Temperature dropped below zero. What had been rain turned into sleet and then snow. The three men on the north side of the Rio Bravo knew if they were to survive the night they had but one option…. build a fire in a steep sided canyon. A fire might betray their presence and position to the marauding bandits, but it was that or freeze to death!
Soon the warming fire was roaring and coffee boiling. The first cup had hardly been poured when they heard horses approaching. The Rangers drew their guns and waited.
From out of the icy darkness rode five Mexican bandits. They reigned their mounts close to the fire, only their eyes visible under their sombreros, their bodies wrapped in wool serapes, staring at the Rangers..
Neither side knew what would happen next. The adversaries stared hard at each other.Finally after tense moments, obviously the leader of the banditos spoke , “Amigo, the noche is muy frio. Tonight we warm by the fire, manana, we fight, no?” Charley and hisfellow Ranger lowered their rifles and holstered their pistols. The five near frozen banditos stepped off of their horses and hurried to the fire!
Minutes later the bandits and the rangers sat beside each other around a much larger fire. bottles of tequila appeared from saddle bags and after several “pulls”, talk like the fire warmed. Tales were told and laughs shared. One of the Rangers suddenly remembered it was the 25th of December, Christmas, Navidad! The small assembled group shook hands and wished each other Merry Christmas. More logs were piled on the fire. Finally tiredness overtook them. The men slept soundly that nigh, all feeling safe!
When the graying dawn foretold the coming of daylight, things changed. The bandits and the Rangers saddled up and without saying a word or sharing a glance parted company. When they met again on the trail a few hours later, all thoughts and memories of the night before were forgotten. Rangers and banditos again became hated enemies!
Charley, always spoke with great reverence of his trusted friends, but also his enemies. “They were MEN!” he would say with respect of those who would have as soon shot himand his fellow rangers dead, as wave a “Howdy!”.
Charley believed strongly a man should be judged not only by his action, beliefs, deeds and friends, but also by his enemies.
Next day…“Take those bottles into the kitchen,” instructed Charley as I pulled a case of single malt spirits from the back of my pickup. There Charley’s cook, Weddo, was ‘“working” on the wood stove preparing a feast of wild turkey and venison. “Think he might have finally learned how to cook,” said Charley as he pointed a biscuit he had lifted from the cook as he walked in. Charley smiled, rather than making his usual sniping about how the cook never quite adapted to modern cooking on a wood stove, as opposed to an open campfire.
Pouring a cup of coffee from a blue enamaled pot on the stove, I noticed Charley had a bottle of “good stuff” hidden in the wood box. For a moment I thought perhaps his merriment could be related to his “tippling” a bit, starting before breakfast. AllI knew whatever the cause, Charley was acting differently. He smiled as we talked about aboutsome of the bucks he had recently seen and hope we might encounter while I was on the ranch.
At the barn I saddled a horse and rode to a remote water hole to check for deer tracks. I returned a couple of hours later, just before dinner. As I did, Charley disappeared into the back of his camp. Several minutes later he emerged wearing a suit that had not likely seen daylight since the 1930’s. It smelled of moth balls and old pipe tobacco.
He looked quite handsome, his hair slicked down. His mustache slightly curled “at the tips”. Age had taken its toll on both man and the suit. But, had Miss Emma been alive today, she would had surely swooned seeing the dashing figure that Charley cut today! It had been Miss Emma, Charley’s love of his life and wife who had selected the campsite the old Ranger now called home and probably the suit he now wore. She wasburied only a short distance away under the spreading limbs of a red oak, it’s leaves now in “full crimson bloom” as if in honor of Ms. Emma!
On the mantle of the rock fireplace was a faded photograph of a beautiful young woman, a lever action rifle in one hand and a huge whitetail buck in the other. Charley glanced at the photograph as he walked toward us. As he passed it, he stopped and stared at the photo. A tear came to his eye as he remembered the good times they hadshared together. It was painfully obvious he missed her horribly!
Truth known he had probably not worn his suit since her funeral. She had passed away, unexpectedly while he was on his way home from a foray in Mexico. He had never forgiven himself for not being at her side when she died. But she had never beenone to dwell on sad moments and had often told Charley so. The old man sniffed, rubbed his nose and eyes with a red neckerchief, then straightened and squared his shoulders, and “screwed on” his hat, before he walked to where I sat.
“Tonight we celebrate!” said he smiling and cocking his hat. “Remember me telling you about the bandits we shared our Christmas night campfire with that cold miserable night
way back when?” I nodded remembering every detail . “What I didn’t tell you is that early the next morning before we all parted company, we swore if we ever met again there would be gunplay and someone would have to die….”
Charlie hesitated, “Later that day I had that bandito leader in my rifle sights. But then forsome reason which I could never explain, at the very last moment before squeezing the trigger on him, I pulled down and shot his horse from under him, rather than him. I spared his life. On foot he quickly scampered and disappeared into the vega.
With a broad smile on his face Charley proclaimed…. “He’s alive! I ran into him a monthago at the Panther Canyon store. We talked for hours. I invited him to come to supper. He’s coming tonight. My old enemy. Now there was a man!”
That night an old Ranger and a former bandito sat together around the dinner table. Just before Weddo brought out a huge pile of venison and fried wild turkey Charley cleared his voice and then asked if he might say grace…”Lord, we thank you for our many blessings. Let us never forget the true meaning of Christmas! Be with us as we celebrate this time with joy, love, and respect, not only for our families and friends, but our enemies as well. Amen!”
Experience is sometimes a harsh teacher. I had roamed the woods behind our rural Texas home throughout the summer of my twelfth year, scouting for deer. Back then because of screw worms our whitetail population was, to say the least, minimal. Seeing deer was possible but not very probable.
One August morning shortly after first light, with the promise to my Mom and Dad I would be home by breakfast so I could start my chores of feeding our animals before it got too hot, I was in the woods sitting watching a field between a stand of white oaks on the hillside, and the dense youpon thickets next the creek bottom. I was watching a trail coming into the opening which lead to a waterhole when I spotted movement coming into the opening. The first to step into the clearing was a young four point. He was followed by a bigger four-point. A third buck stopped a bit farther back into the brush. I could see he was a buck. Like the other two he was still in velvet. But from what I could see, his antlers were considerably bigger. My heart started beating. No doubt this was the biggest buck I had ever seen. He stepped clear of the brush. My heart started beating an alarming rate.
I do not remember the date, although it had to in the early 1960’s. Nor do I remember the country, but it was in Africa. I do remember the photo of my hero Jack O’Connor long the “Dean of Gun Writers” with a monstrous greater kudu, a great gray ghost bull with spiral horns measuring over 60-inches. The photo and story made a huge impression on me.
Shortly after the photos and story appeared in Outdoor Life, I made a promise. Some day I would hunt Africa for greater kudu and take one no less big than the bull taken by O’Connor!
Little did I know doing so would take the better part of a lifetime!