It was Christmas Eve at daybreak when we found him in the yard.
His horse was porcupined with frost, the ground was frozen hard.
He must’a drifted in last night after we’d all gone to bed
And had a fatal heart attack, ‘cause, fer dang sure, he was dead!
We recognized him right away as Tater Jack, the preacher,
A fire and brimstone hard-nosed man, with one redeeming feature —
He believed! And took it on himself to spread the Holy Gospel
In places where the reg’lar church had deemed it near impos’ble.
We only got to see him twice a year ‘cause we wuz out a ways.
He usually came by Christmas and he’d stay a couple days.
Now, Christmas in a cowboy camp’s a pretty lonely place
And folks like us, that live alone, build a sorta carapace
Like turtles have. Which insulates our heart from too much feelin’
But Tater Jack cut no one slack! He preached like thunder pealin’!
And got just down to the question...what did Christmas really mean?!
Was it just another winter day to ply the old routine?
He’d dump the whole load on us, but what the heck, we had the time.
And he was a grand diversion. Thumpin’ Bibles ain’t a crime.
But he’d end each Christmas sermon with the passage from Luke.
He explained, we were the shepherds which he meant as no rebuke,
Then he’d traipse us all out in the dark and point straight up and say,
"Fear not, I bring good tidings. Upon you is born this day
A savior, who is Jesus Christ the Lord! See them stars and us below...
They were shinin’ on them shepherds then, two thousand years ago!
So ya see, that’s how it started, with a bunch of guys like you
Who could see through all the hoopla and give this day its due.
That’s why He told the shepherds first. See, God trusts a simple man.
So He signed yer king up early, ‘cause He knew you’d understand."
Well, Tater Jack would ramble on, but what he said held water
And it made us cowboys kinda proud, and humble, like it ought’er.
Sam would play his ukulele and we’d sing a song or two.
I reckon we were better men ‘cause ol’ Tater drifted through.
So findin’ him this mornin’ put a damper on the day.
We thawed him out and combed his hair and stored his stuff away,
Then buried him this afternoon on his final Christmas Eve.
We’ve all been sorta aimless since, maybe just too numb to grieve.
Russell Don had shot a sagehen and we saved it for tonight.
It was good, and we sure ate it all...but Christmas ain’t quite right.
Tater Jack made it official, a snubbin’ post to tie to.
He gave Christmas real meaning. So, maybe we should try to
Carry on, like he would have us do. Ain’t none of us a preacher,
But no line camp bunch of cowboys ever had a better teacher.
"Sam, if you can play Hark the Herald Angels on your uke,
I’ll try and read the cowboy part...in those passages from Luke."
Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website, www.baxterblack.com.