A Singing Cowboy Christmas
By Tim Wintermute
They say that behind every problem is an opportunity in disguise, but as Ezra Beeman sat behind his desk in the Pastor’s Study of Prairie Star Church he couldn’t see any opportunity hidden behind his problem. It was three days before the Christmas Eve candlelight service and Roger Flint, who was supposed to lead the singing of Christmas Carols had come down with a bad case of laryngitis and could barely whisper. There was no one to replace Roger, least of all Ezra who was a terrible singer. He’d been informed of that fact when his voice changed at the age of thirteen by the choir director of the church he attended. Up until then he had loved singing but after that he never sang out loud in public again. Instead, he would mouth the words when others were singing. Even his wife Louise, had never heard him sing. If he inflicted his voice on those who showed up for the Christmas Eve Candlelight service they’d be heading for the doors before one candle was lit. And if not having someone to lead the singing was bad enough, the Church organist, Sara Wiggins, had to leave unexpectedly for Des Moines to be with one of her daughters who had just had a baby a month early. Unlike Roger, she had managed to find a backup, one of her piano students, fifteen year old Charles Bicklow. Actually, Charles was more like a half back up, since he’d never played an organ, not to mention the Prairie Star’s with all of its keys, stops and pedals and rows of pipes. The soul stirring sound of the massive organ would be replaced by the tinkling from the small upright piano that Charles would be playing. So far the only opportunity Ezra could see was for disaster.
“What’s up Ezra?”
Ezra looked up at his good friend, Iker, “Ike”, Elizondo, who had walked through the open door of the Pastor’s Study. Ike was a semi-retired sheep rancher of Basque ancestry, who, even though he was a Catholic, religiously attended Prairie Star, although always sitting in the back pew. The first Christmas Eve service Ike had attended was two years ago when a blizzard hit and he couldn’t drive the fifteen miles to Picketwire for the Midnight Mass at St. Drogos. His wife, Elaine, was enjoying the sun in the new condo they’d bought in a Florida retirement community, which he hated and his adult sons were with their families enjoying the white stuff.
This would be the first in person Christmas Eve Service since Covid 19. Last year, three visitors from Silicon Valley had installed Fixed Wireless using the Prairie Star’s steeple for the antenna and this had provided high speed Internet service to Beulah Junction and the surrounding rural area. As a thank you they’d set it up so Prairie Star’s Christmas Eve service could be attended virtually. More people tuned in than had ever attended the service in person and some of them had started attending in person once the Covid restrictions were lifted. Why, one Sunday as many as forty had people shown up and regular attendance was averaging twenty three. Of course, this was a drop in the ecclesiastical bucket for a sanctuary built for a congregation of five hundred, but it was enough to keep the denomination Prairie Star belonged to from closing the Church. The real test would be the Christmas Eve candlelight service and with no one to play the organ and no one to lead the carol singing, the whole thing could be a fiasco. He imagined people walking out long before one candle was lit. “Do you sing?” Ezra asked Ike.
Ike, who had seated himself in the chair facing Ezra, thought a minute, which was not a good sign. Finally, he said, “Let’s see, I used to sing when I was watching over my sheep.”
Ezra’s eyes lit up, “Now that’s pretty Christmasy - a shepherd singing to his flock of sheep…”
“It was pretty effective at scaring off the wolves.”
“There are wolves around here?”
“Not anymore. I told you it was effective. Unfortunately, it unsettled the sheep as well so I’m not sure how it will go over if I sing to your flock.”
Ezra pondered the problem of having no song leader and no organist as he drove to Picketwire the next morning. He told himself to stop indulging in self-pity. His problems were nothing compared to what other people were facing. Why look at what Mary and Joseph were up against the first Christmas Eve with no room at the Inn. That reminded him of the three empty bedrooms in the Manse where he lived. Suddenly he was blinded by the sunlight reflecting off the snow on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He reached for his sunglasses and put them on. Then he cracked his car window and smelled the sage in the air.
Picketwire was the biggest town in Purgatory County. Not that there were any competitors in the sparsely populated southeast quadrant of Colorado. He was supposedly driving there to look for gifts but it was mainly to get out and it was as good a reason as any. The only people he’d be buying gifts for were Ike and Elaine, who’d invited him for dinner on Christmas Day. Whatever, happened, Ezra knew that after the service he’d walk next door to the large, empty Manse where he’d drink a cup of sherry, eat a ham sandwich and stare at his Christmas tree. The only reason he continued to decorate a tree every Christmas was so people who drove by could see it through the large bay windows of the manse.
After parking Ezra strolled down Carson Street. The light posts and store fronts were festooned with Christmas decorations and carols wafted from speakers. Soon Ezra was almost, but not quite, in a festive mood. Picketwire had escaped the malling of America and was holding its own against the online Amazon’s. After stopping in several stores Ezra walked into Merle’s Merchandise Mart. The closest thing Picketwire had to a department store. As he made his way down the central first floor aisle, decked with boughs of holly he remembered the many Christmas pasts when he’d had a long gift list. Now, he could count the number of presents on his list with the fingers of a mitten.
It was then that he heard someone singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The voice was deep and smooth with a slight twang to it. Standing in front of a large red chair under an arbor of candy canes was a tall man with a Gabby Hayes style white beard. He was dressed as Santa Claus, but instead of the usual Santa headgear he wore a red ten gallon hat and black cowboy boots. A guitar rested on the large buckle of a wide black belt that kept the belly under the Santa coat in check. A sign next to him said Meet the Singing Cowboy Santa. The small crowd of shoppers standing in a semi-circle in front of him applauded when the song ended.
The man bowed then placed his guitar on a stand and pulled on a pair of red mittens. “Can’t play the old guitar with these on.” He walked over to the chair. “Now I gotta sit down in this here chair so all you kids out there can come up and tell me what you want for Christmas. Adults are welcome as well, but my lap can’t support anything over fifty pounds even with all this padding.” He patted his protruding belly.
As Ezra looked for gifts for Elaine and Ike, he was interrupted by a hearty “Howdy Christmas.”
Ezra turned to face the Singing Cowboy Santa and stammered, “Howdy. This is the first time I’ve seen a Singing Santa not to mention a cowboy one.”
“The man laughed. “I just do this during Christmas season. The rest of the year I’m just a singing cowboy without the Santa.”
“That’s how you make your living?”
“Living?” Dex shook his head slowly. “People don’t want to hear an old fart singing cowboy songs, but back when the band was together I managed to make a living at it.”
“What was your band?”
“The Cattle Crooners. We were sort of semi-famous in these parts. I decided to go out on my own and get my piece of fame and fortune before it was too late. Left these parts for Denver. I’ve been on my own ever since and never got my piece of that old fame and fortune. After doing Santa Claus in a mall up in Denver for a couple of years I added singing and became the Singing Cowboy Santa. Been doing gigs for about six years now and this year Merle’s hired me so I’m back in my old stomping grounds. Since I’m supposed to be Santa Claus I don’t tell people my real name and with this.” He tugged on his white beard, “No one recognizes me, even here where I was once, as I said, semi-famous. I’m surprised that you never heard of me and the Cattle Crooners. We played in a lot of bars around here.”
“I don’t go to bars.”
“Not your scene, huh?”
“In my line of work it’s not a good idea to be seen in bars.”
“And what line is that?”
“I’m a minister.”
“Well, golly, a preacher man. Guess you being spotted in a bar would be like a kid seeing me drinking beer in this Santa outfit. I’ve got to watch myself when I’m dressed this way so I don’t damage the brand.” He laughed, and held out his right hand, then realizing he was still wearing his mittens took them off and offered his hand again. “My name is Dexter Carter, but people call me Dex. That’s when they don’t call me Santa or some other name that I shouldn’t repeat in front of a preacher.””
“I’ve heard them all,” Ezra replied with a miraculous grin. “I’m Ezra Beeman, when people don’t call me Reverend. You can call me Ezra.”
“What’s your church, Ezra?”
“Prairie Star in Beulah Junction. It’s the Church that has the tall steeple with a star on top.”
“Right, you can see if for miles at night when it’s all lit up.”
“It’s been there a hundred years and I’ve been its Pastor for almost half.”
“Now that is one heck of a gig,” Dex said in amazement. “You know a lot of bars would love to have a sign you could see for miles away.”
“It’s not a sign…well, not one for advertising, anyway. If it was it hasn’t been very effective. The Church can hold up to five hundred people in its pews, but I’ve bought twenty five candles for our annual Christmas Eve candlelight service and it will be a miracle if they’re all lit.”
“I hear you, Ezra, the audiences for my singing cowboy performances have gotten pretty sparse as well.”
“I don’t think of the people who attend Church services as an audience, but as congregants. It’s not meant to be entertainment. Anyway, that’s my view for what it’s worth and I’m not sure it’s worth much anymore.”
“Well, at least you’re saving sinners while I’m just singing to them. Of course, all the kids I see as Santa Claus are nice rather than naughty since Merle’s doesn’t sell lumps of coal in their Toy Department. I’m not about to not about to go against company policy since if it wasn’t for this job I’d have driven into the sunset in my camper.”
“You’re going camping on Christmas?”
“Camping?” Dex chuckled. “I’ve been living out of my camper for quite awhile.”
“Sounds like you’ve fallen on some hard times,”
“More like a slow slide. You heard the story that country songs are about a guy’s wife leaving and his dog dying and his truck not starting? Well, so far my truck starts. I’ll be heading west after this Santa gig. There’s snow in the mountains so maybe I’ll get stuck going over Raton Pass and have myself a white Christmas.”
“Well good luck.”
“I didn’t think that Preacher’s believed in luck. I thought you believed in miracles.”
“Yes,” Ezra coughed. “Of course, I meant God be with you.”
“Thanks, Ezra,” Dex replied, then pulled up the red left sleeve of his jacket and looked at his watch. “I have to get back for my next Santa set. They don’t like to be kept waiting.”
“I imagine the kids can be very impatient.”
“Kids, I’m talking about the parents,” Dex chuckled then turned serious and said, “Look, Ezra, you may not have that many folks at your Christmas Eve Service but that more the merrier thing is over rated. Take it from someone who’s spent a lot of his life in crowded bars.”
“It’d be nice to have company,” Ezra repeated Dex’s words as he sat in a booth at Sue’s Pretty Good Cafe slowly chewing on half of the Tuna on wheat sandwich he ordered. He only had one of the fries that were heaped on the plate. He wasn’t hungry and would ask for a “get along little dogie bag” as they called it at the Pretty Good. He’d have it for dinner that night since it wouldn’t last. He thought of his Christmas Eve dinner ham sandwich Since Christmas wasn’t on a Sunday this year, he’d have nothing to do in the morning since he’d be alone. In the late afternoon he’d go to Ike’s for Christmas dinner with Ike and Elaine. Probably their grown kids and young grandkids would stop by and show them what they got for Christmas. All of which would remind him that he was a widower with no children. Ezra took another bite from his sandwich and thought about Dex. How could feel sorry for himself when Dex would be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas alone in his camper?
“Howdy again.” Ezra looked up at Dex, who was standing next to his booth, dressed in his Cowboy Santa outfit. “Just came over for my lunch break,” he explained, holding up a mug of coffee.
“Have a seat.”
“Don’t mind if I do. When I sit at the counter some of the fellas start joking, telling me what they want Santa to bring them for Christmas.”
“What kind of things do they want?” Ezra asked as Dex sat down opposite him.
“Let’s just say that that they’re not the kind of thing you’d find in Merle’s Toy Department, if you get my drift?” Dex chuckled, then stopped and added. “Sorry, I forgot you were a preacher.”
“I may be a preacher but I’m not a prude. I get your drift.”
Ezra watched Dex look at his plate with the half-eaten sandwich and pile of fries.”
“Say, Dex, I’m not going to eat the rest of this. You’d be doing me a favor if you finished it. Otherwise, Sue would probably think I didn’t like it.” Ezra pushed the plate across the Formica table-top to Dex’s side.
“Well, I wouldn’t want Sue to be upset.” Dex picked up the half sandwich.
“It’s Tuna. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Heck no,” Dex said, taking a big bite.
Ezra watched Dex chewing on the Tuna and thought about buying him another sandwich. Maybe roast beef, or something before dismissing it as something that would seem demeaning. Instead, surprising himself, he asked, “Say, Dex, I wonder if you’d be interested in playing a gig on Christmas Eve?”
Dex looked up and wiped some crumbs from his lips with a napkin, before answering, “Sure, but all the bars around here are closed on Christmas Eve.”
“I mean at my Church. We need someone to lead the singing of Christmas Carols. Our song leader has a bad case of laryngitis. I have a terrible voice and there’s really nobody else. It will sound like the Tower of Babel without a good leader. It will be over by eight so you might be able to get as far as Raton Pass for your white Christmas. You’d be doing me a favor…I’ll pay you whatever you get for your regular gigs.”
“When I do get a chance to appear as the Singing Cowboy I just put my guitar case or hat on the floor and hope the customers toss something in.”
“I’ll give you what we get in collection plate, then. That’s sort of like a tip.”
“Okay, then I’ll give it a go, but I’ll only take half of the collection. The other half goes ot the house, or house of worship in this case. What time do I make my appearance?”
“The service starts at seven.”
“I’m finished here at three on the 24th and could drive right over. Mind if I come early and scope out the venue, I mean the sanctuary?”
“Good idea. You could also call Charles Bicklow, who is going to accompany the carol singing on the piano. He’s only fifteen, but he’s supposed to be pretty good.”
“Sure. He’s probably never played Christmas Carols cowboy style so I should go over some things with him.”
Ezra took out his address book and wrote Charles’ phone number on a napkin. Dex looked at it then stuffed it in one of the shopping bag size pockets of his Santa coat.
Ezra hesitated at the side door that led to the front of the sanctuary. He said a silent prayer that there would be a miracle and twenty five people would be sitting in the pews. And, then he said a second prayer that they would still be there when the service ended.”
The door opened and Ike popped through it. “You better get a move on Ezra. You don’t want to keep all those people out there waiting.”
“All those people?”
“I’d say there are at least fifty.”
“Fifty!” Ezra exclaimed.
“And people are still arriving.”
“I thought if we got twenty five it would be a miracle.”
“You got your miracle,” Ike said.
“It’s only a miracle if they stay.”
“One miracle at a time, Ezra,” Ike replied. “You better get out there before the music starts, because once it does they may not even notice you with Dex Carter, the Singing Cowboy, leading the Christmas Carols. How did you get him, anyway?”
Ezra shrugged and said, “I just met him at Merle’s Merchandise Emporium four days ago. He was their Santa Claus. He actually called himself the Singing Cowboy Santa because he sang Christmas Carols before listening to what the kids wanted for Christmas. We met when he was taking a break. Later I ran into him when I was having lunch at Sue’s Pretty Good and asked him if he’d be interested in leading the singing of the Christmas Carols. He said he used to perform as a singing cowboy with some group…”
“The Cattle Crooners. They used to play in the bars around here years ago. Really popular. But then they broke up, disbanded or whatever bands do, when Dex decided to go solo and left the area. Never heard of him again. You know, I should call Elaine and tell her Dex Carter is here. She wouldn’t want to miss this.” Ike started to turn the doorknob. “You better get out there before they start without you.”
Suddenly there was the sound of an electric guitar. It was loud enough to hear through the thick wood of the door. “What’s that?” Ezra said.
“That’s Dex. He’s got his guitar plugged into an amp.”
“You know, an amplifier. Not only is Dex playing an electric guitar, Charles Bicklow has swapped that little piano for an electronic keyboard so you won’t have to worry about anyone hearing him.” Ike chuckled. “In fact, you probably should have handed out earplugs along with the candles.” Ezra started to open the door when Ike stopped him and tugged on his black robe. “You can’t go on in this thing. It looks like you’re presiding over a funeral. Especially with the get ups Dex and Charles are wearing.”
“What do you mean get ups?”
“Let’s just say they capture the Cowboy Christmas spirit. Here, wear this,” Ike removed the long candy cane striped Christmas scarf he was wearing and wound it around Ezra’s neck. Then he opened the door and gave Ezra a push. “Now scoot!”
“You sure were surprised when you saw Charlie and me in our outfits,” Dex said to Ezra after the service. Everyone else had left, including Ike with his wife Elaine, who had run over to catch the last half of the service. Ezra had invited Dex over to the manse where he would count the money in the collection plates and pay him his half.
Ezra looked up from the table where he’d counted out the money from the collection plates. He hoped Dex wouldn’t notice that his pile was bigger than the one for the Church. “I wasn’t surprised so much by seeing you wearing your Singing Cowboy Santa outfit as I was by seeing Charles dressed as one of Santa’s elves.”
“I got the elf costume from Merle’s. They used to hire people to play elves, but it seems they downsized Santa’s workshop this year.”
“I had no idea Charles played an electronic keyboard.”
“When I called him up I told him I was going to bring my guitar and plug it into an amp. That’s when he told me he had a keyboard. He’s only been playing it in his garage, but he knows a bunch of country and western songs. His parents say he’s too young to be in a band. They were there, by the way and came up afterward and told me they were pretty proud of him.”
“I’m really amazed so many people showed up.”
Dex grinned. “You and me both. When I was doing my Santa gig at Merles I invited people to join the Singing Cowboy Santa for a Christmas Eve Carol singalong at your Church, but I didn’t figure anyone would really take me up on it.”
“Well, it sure increased the collection. Your cut comes to three hundred and fifteen dollars and fifty five cents,” Ezra said, tapping the larger pile, while covering the smaller one with his other hand so Dex wouldn’t notice the difference. “You can count it if you want.”
“Hey, if you can’t trust a preacher, who can you trust.”
“It’s more about trusting my arithmetic ability.”
“All I can say is that it’s a bigger pile than what I’d have made playing in a bar,” Dex said with a grin. “Hey, I don’t have my Santa sack with me. Do you have a bag you can spare?”
As Dex stuffed the money into the paper bag Ezra gave him, Ezra asked him if he’d care for a glass of sherry. I’m afraid I don’t have anything stronger to offer.”
“Sherry sounds good. I’ll be driving so I wouldn’t want anything stronger, anyway.”
“You’re really going to head out tonight in your camper?” Ezra asked, pouring them both a glass of sherry and giving one to Dex who then walked over to one of the easy chairs near the fireplace and sat down.
“Time to hang up the Santa suit for another year and mosey on down the road or up the road since, as I think I told you, I’m planning on taking Raton Pass into New Mexico. There’s a bar in Albuquerque that said I could play there on New Year’s Eve for tips.”
“And what will you do after that?” Ezra asked, stooping down and lighting the kindling in the fireplace.
“Keep on moseying until I’m all moseyed out.” He sighed. “The alternative lifestyle I’ve been living doesn’t seem to have any alternatives.”
“I can make you some ham sandwiches to take with you. One of my parishioners gave me a really nice ham. I can also make some coffee and put it in a thermos you can take with you.”
“That would sure beat the bag of potato chips and can of Red Bull I’ve got out in the camper.” Dex said, toasting Ezra with his glass of sherry.
As the fire caught, Ezra sat down in the other easy chair. “Now this is nice, Ezra, Dex said, “Sitting in front of a blazing fire and…” He looked over at the Christmas tree. “And the Christmas tree all lit up and there on top…” He pointed out the window over the top of the tree to the shining star on the tip of the church steeple. “The Prairie Star shining away out into the night. The only thing missing are presents under your tree.”
“I’ve got everything I need,” Ezra replied. At least, anything you can wrap up and put under a tree he thought. “Besides, it’s better to give than receive.”
Dex chuckled. “You know, Ezra, in all the years I’ve played Santa this is the first time someone told me that’s what they wanted for Christmas.”
They both stared at the fire as the logs crackled and the flames danced. Ezra thought of all the Christmas Eve’s he’d spent since Louise’s death sitting in front of the fireplace…alone. “Say, Dex, there are four bedrooms in this place and I only use one. You’re more than welcome to spend the night in any of the other three.”
“Well, now, I suppose I could forgo the comforts of my camper for some company on Christmas.”
“Now that’s quite and alliteration.”
“A melodic way of putting it.”
Dex chuckled. “Must be the singer in me.”
“I was also thinking that based on how much people enjoyed your performing tonight that there may be other places around here where you could play and that you didn’t necessarily have to mosey on.”
“I didn’t think you knew much about the bar scene, Ezra?”
“I wasn’t thinking of bars, not that I’m opposed to them. Just seems like there might be some alternatives you could consider.”
Dex leaned forward in his chair, his interest perked, and asked, “What sort of alternative place are you thinking of?”
“You could perform here.”
“You mean in your Church?” He shook his head. “Going from a singing cowboy to being a choir boy might be too much of an alternative.”
“I don’t mean that. You’d still be performing as the Singing Cowboy. The concerts could be in our social hall. The only thing it’s been used for in the past few years is funeral receptions. Some live performances could be a way to…well…liven things up around here. We’d ask for contributions like the way we took collection tonight and pay you from that.”
Dex nodded his head and stroked his beard. “I’m sort of cottoning to your idea, Ezra. I wonder if Charles would want to perform with me. It would be great to have someone young and he’s really talented. Do you think he’d mind if he went by Charlie rather than Charles? It’s just more of a singing cowboy name. Sort of like me going by Dex rather than Dexter.”
“I don’t think he’d mind.”
“What about his parents not wanting him in a band?”
“I don’t think they’d object as long as you’re not playing in bars,” Ezra said. “This would be more like playing at a square dance or a hoe down.”
“Cowboys don’t hoe down or up, Ezra, but yeah, I get your drift and I’m willing to give it a try…pardner.” Dex reached over with his right hand and Ezra leaned forward and shook it. Dex settled back in his chair and said, “You know you said that it’s better to give than receive and you’ve been giving me quite a bit so there’s something I want to give you…”
“I told you I don’t need anything,” Ezra sputtered.
“It’s not something that’s going to be under your tree, Ezra, but it’s something you’re going to get because there’s something you need that I can give, because Lord knows you’ve given me a lot.”
“What do you mean, you earned the money.”
“I don’t mean that, but the ham sandwich, the sherry, the place to stay, the company and…the opportunity that will let me to keep on being a singing cowboy.” With that, Dex, reached down to his guitar case on the floor next to where he was sitting, opened it and took out his guitar.
“You’re going to sing. Why that’s a great gift, Dex.”
Dex shook his head and grinned. “Not me. I noticed that you weren’t really singing along with the others when we were doing the carols. I could tell that you weren’t singing out loud but lip syncing, which means you know the words. What you need is a chance to sing out loud.”
“But I told you I’m a terrible singer. I can’t sing.”
“You can sing, Ezra,” Ezra insisted. “It’s just that you’re afraid to have anyone listen. Well, my gift to you is that you’re going to sing all of your favorite carols and you should holler them out because I’m not going to give a hoot what you sound like.”
Ezra looked at Dex, who was smiling at him expectantly, his fingers on the strings of his guitar. Then he looked at the Christmas tree in front of the window and then above the tree, through the window, at the shining light on top of Prairie Star’s steeple. “Okay,” he said, and started singing.