In the winter of 1887, Buffalo Bill Cody was with his Wild West show in England. A reporter from the Manchester Sunday Chronicle asked Bill how winters out west compared with winter in England, and Cody took the opportunity to tell a story about a frontier Christmas. The Sunday Chronicle, Manchester, England, December 25, 1887
Well, now, that’s rather a curious question to put to a fellow who’s faced the worst weather that is made in America, man and boy, for the best half of a lifetime. If you can fancy yourself thirty miles from everywhere, with the cold down to four degrees above zero, a tired horse under you, and nothing for dinner more substantial than a plug of tobacco and an extra pull on the waist-belt, I reckon you’ll get some notion of how you feel when you’re real cold. Yet I don’t know but what, on the whole, you feel your winters worse here [in England] than we do. The air of the plains is dry and clear and as exhilarating as a glass of old wine, while your English frost, slight as it is, seems to have a razor edge to it. There’s a wet-blankety feeling about it all the time. But comparisons are odious.
If you want a story I can tell you of a Christmas adventure of my own that I shall look back upon with pleasure to my dying day. Mine has been a stormy life and a perilous one…and incidents like the one I am going to describe are like shafts of sunshine bursting through the black ugly thunderheads of savage memories.
It was on the Western border in the rough old days, long before the railroad had penetrated the wilds, in the time of the gold-seekers of the sixties. I was putting in some time with a lot of daredevil fellows who had set up a mining camp at a place called Russell’s Gulch. The whole district was dotted with such little communities of young, strong men—a man had to be young and strong, you see, or he couldn’t stand the life—and the gold they wrested from the earth in the daytime was squandered with a lavish hand at night… [They were] a lawless lot, unkempt, unshorn, and hating all formality as they despised the foppery of a boiled white shirt. Yet honest, true, and brave—and tender-hearted as a woman if you only knew how to touch them on the soft spot. Such were the Western gold seekers of the early days.
Russell’s had been greatly vexed all through the fall of that year by the depredations of a gang of blackguards who belonged to nowhere in particular—a set of pariahs who had exhausted the patience of one camp after another until every man’s hand was against them…If a man met one of these desperadoes in daylight, it was considered a righteous deed to shoot him in his tracks, and some of the other boys would turn out and help to bury him. After dark, however, the tables were turned: they were minions of the moon, and no man’s belongings were safe…
The boys had made me chief of a small Vigilante Committee, and on Christmas Eve, I was about two miles out of town, kind of prospecting around in a haphazard fashion, hoping I might get a sight of the game I was after when I suddenly saw the glimmer of a light amongst some low sand hills right ahead.
“Cody,” I said to myself, “I reckon you’ve struck it rich at last. This must be the nest of your night birds, sure as you’re a sinner!”
I just felt to see if my pistol was where it ought to be and then stalked around, Indian fashion, till I got near enough to see that the light shone from the window of a log cabin standing out there alone in the wilderness. In less than a minute, I was standing by the door-post, with my ear glued to the crevice, to listen to what might be going forward. You could have felled me with a feather the next moment when I heard the sweet, soft voice of a little child—it was two long years since I’d last heard one—and it said, “Mamma, it is Christmas tomorrow. Does Santa Claus come here to bring toys and dolls and candy for little mites like me, as he used to do back home in the States?”
“Maybe God will grant it, my pet,” said a woman’s voice, “but I’m not at all sure whether Santa Claus will come to us now, we are so poor. Go to bed now, my darlings, and say your prayers, for God is out here in the West as well as ‘way back yonder.'”
Well, now, if you’ll believe me, I took off my hat at that, sir, for it was a kind of a set-back for a man who’d crept to that door with his teeth set, his hand on his pistol, and blood in his mind, to hear that sort of talk going on. I crept to the window and peeped in, and there was a woman kissing goodnight to two of the prettiest little tots you ever saw. When she turned my way, I recognized her as a widow woman who came to camp to see after a few of the boys’ woolen shirts and things and washed them now and again. A quiet, patient, faded-looking woman she was. I’d never known where she lived, and I don’t suppose there was a single galoot in camp who dreamed that she had children about her or ever gave her a second thought at all.
I waited there a good while, for it was a pretty sight to see her tuck the little things up to rest, though heaven knows the rags that covered them were poor enough. And presently, she kneeled down to pray, and that sort of fetched me again, for praying was a bit out of fashion in the Gulch just then. And when she got up I saw she was crying and wringing her hands, and I heard her say, “Father of mercy, but this is a bitter cup! I couldn’t bear to cross them, but they’ve hung up their little stockings, and God help me! I’ve neither a slice of bacon nor a crust of bread left to put in our lips. Thy will be done!” she said, with a sudden burst, “but oh, what shall I do without a stick of wood to burn after tomorrow and this bitter weather so cruelly gnawing at us all?”
And then that woman knelt down again and prayed for firewood and clothes and bread for the children till, I tell you, my heart went sick inside me. I was crying like a child myself, so I just crept away to where I’d tethered my horse and struck the back trail for camp. I rode straight in amongst the shanties and raised a war-whoop that would have made your hair curl. In less than a jiffy every mother’s son of them was out on what we called the street, with their guns in their hands.
“What’s got you, Buffalo Bill?” says Long Jake, the fellow that run the biggest gambling hall in the Gulch. “You’re generally a quiet sort.”
“That’s all right,” says I, “but I guess I’m loaded tonight, so wake up, all you fellows. I want you to ante up with me for once. Come along, the whole crowd of you, and I’ll show you how to gamble!”
With that, about half the population gathered around, and I made them a little speech about what I’d seen that set a good half of the brawny-armed, black-muzzled reprobates crying. I wound up by spinning a twenty-dollar piece and challenging the best rustler in camp to match it for the benefit of the little ones yonder. In less than ten minutes, every poker table in that saloon was heaping with gold dust and coin. The idea caught on like a raging fever, and all around you could hear them shouting, “I’ll go you one and raise you two!” “I’ll stay with you or die!” and the excitement was tremendous for more than an hour.
I had to ask them to shut down presently, for if the whole of Russell’s was to go into the Santa Claus business, it would be as well to be on time. So I took round my hat and the boys who’d been winning chipped in their pile, and then we formed a procession with torches and a bugler in front and went into all the saloons and gambling dens in camp one after the other. You bet that was no scrimping crowd, either—we just cleaned out the whole community of their night’s winnings, and I’m proud to say that not a living soul stood out.
You see, there was many a man there who had left wife and children behind him in the States: some because they thought to make a fortune for them, and some—well, for other reasons. But there was never a ‘tough’ yet who hadn’t his tender moments.
I’ve known a few hard-shell blackguards in my time, but they’re men, after all, if you can only persuade them to remember it. And if you want to squeeze the milk of human kindness out of a hard man, my advice is—get him in a crowd.
We went down to the store next, and the boys bought up enough dry goods and provisions to freight a small ship. And a curious thing happened right then, for we’d all clean forgotten about dolls and toys for the children. Then Amos Green, about the ugliest kind of devil in the camp—a fellow who’d killed two men for certain and was known to be divorced from at least one wife—allowed that there ought to be some toys in the outfit or the bottom would drop out of the whole thing. As luck would have it, the storekeeper remembered of a few dusty boxes of dolls and other contraptions he’d had on hand for a long while. Amos bought up the lot, and then the procession passed on.
And I tell you, sir, that I never led the way in front of the proudest military expedition it has been my fortune to scout for with half the joy that I felt in leading that file of rough, half-drunken miners, each one carrying his load, that marched out of the gulch, silently and in the darkness that night. We took the shortest cut to the widow’s cabin, and without a whisper or a footfall that you could hear, the boys crept up to the door and piled up their burdens against it. To crown the business, they left a buckskin sack of virgin gold a’top of the heap, which had a letter tied to its neck to mention that Santa Claus had just happened along and would have called in as usual to pay his respects, only he was in a bit of a hurry.
The boys went back to camp then, but somehow I felt as if I was bound to see this thing through, and of course, there was just a chance of some horse thief or other interfering with the program. So I lit a cigar and sat down on a stump well under the shelter of the bushes, within range of the cabin, with my rifle across my knees, and I’d have felt sorry for any sneaking prowler who so much as smelt at the widow’s property that morning.
I stayed then till the dawn came up, with a great red flush that set the cabin windows blazing like rubies, and presently, a little curl of smoke from the roof showed that the widow had got up and lighted the fire with her last few sticks of wood. And presently, she opened the door, and the whole Christmas avalanche went tumbling into the house with a rattle that sounded better than any bells I ever heard. And the two little cubs came leaping out, screaming, “Santa Claus, Santa Claus!” at the top of their childish voices. I waited till I saw the widow kneel down again at the threshold to thank heaven for her luck, and then I slung the gun over my shoulder and vamoosed.
In half an hour I had reported progress to the subscribers. I regret to record that every man with a spark of respect for himself in Russell’s Camp got drunk as Old Noah that Christmas Day.
Parts 1 & 2 of my series on Buffalo Bill Cody for Legends of the Old West are available here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/65NfDyDoosnqUphtM6qiUZ