It’s time once again for Mark’s annual Christmas Short Story. The story, characters, and incidents portrayed in this piece are fictitious.
“The Night Before Christmas Shoot-out”
The scene was of three cowboys sitting around a small campfire at the edge of a forest. Large branches from a fallen pine reached up above the blanket of snow that covered much of the campsite and all of the valley for as far as you could see… which wasn’t all that far because it was still snowing.
An old tin coffeepot rested awkwardly at the edge of the fire. The cowboy seated on the fireside of the fallen tree was holding a coffee cup in his gloved left hand. His right hand was tucked cozily inside his heavy, woolen coat. He held the cup close to his lips to shield his face, and to capture what little warmth emanated from the metal mug.
His hat was covered with a thin layer of ice that gave it a grey velvet appearance. Its brim was pulled low, hiding his eyes from the careful inspection of his two apparent guests. The cowboy sitting across to his right was wearing a heavy bear-skin coat and fancy-looking, heavy leather boots that were likely taken from some rich guy who prided himself in boot wear. From his mangy skunk-skin head-topping, to his poorly sewn rabbit skin gloves it was obvious that nothing the hombre had on his person or in his manner matched the quality of his boots. It added an unsettling air to an already tense situation.
“So, you said we could share your coffee? You gotta cup?” The stranger informed Nice Boots that he only traveled with the one cup. The cowboy seated next to Nice Boots said, “I’ll get the one out of your bedroll, Vargus.” He started to stand, but Vargus told him to sit, that he’d get it himself.
With that, Vargus casually removed the glove from his right hand and while standing in a stoop, reached inside the opening of his bear-skinned coat. Without disturbing his coffee cup, the cowboy pulled his Colt from inside his coat and shot Vargus right at the base of his skunk-skin hat. Before collapsing, Vargus staggered in a stoop one step forward and three back.
“And, cut!” the director yelled. “That’s a take! Meryl, you are so smooth, man.? And, Frank, your expression at the sound of the gun was so realistic looking.” Frank, the third cowboy, told the director that the gun shot was so much louder than in the other scenes, that it startled him. The director had a way of doing stuff like that to add to his actors’ reactions. After four takes, it’s often hard for an actor to look convincingly surprised.
Meryl, the fast draw cowboy, helped his friend up and swatted the snow from his coat. “Sam, how many times do you figure I’ve killed you over the years?” he said. Sam believed it was at least five. He had been shot too many times by too many named actors to keep count. Meryl was his favorite person to get shot by. Just nice and considerate as he could be. He never put on airs around the crew or stand-ins or extras. He was genuine.
Martin said that while the crew set up the camera, sound and lights for a close-up on Meryl and Sam on the same scene, the actors needed to go to the tent and get some coffee and try to warm up. He’d call for them when he was ready.
Sam and Frank had been enjoying the warmth of the tent for about an hour when they got the “On Set!” call. Meryl was a short distance away from it all, staring at the glitter of the snowflakes as they met the lights inside the perimeter of the set. He was brought back to the reality of place and time by a yell from Martin. “Meryl! Get on set!”
The scene began just as it had the five previous times. Frank had just told Vargus that he would get his coffee cup for him, and Vargus ordered him to sit. Vargus then began his stoop, but was stopped when he heard a command from the cowboy with his hat pulled low. “Sit back down,” the cowboy told him. Sam maintained his stoop as he looked to the monitor where Martin was seated. Martin shrugged and then nodded. He had witnessed stuff like this on several occasions, but generally by wacko actors or the ones so stuck on themselves that they seemed to delight in going on a tangent and messing everything up. But, Meryl? This was the first time Martin had ever seen or heard of Meryl taking liberties. It made him curious as to what was to happen next.
Sam sat back down. “Thanks,” Meryl said. “Before shooting you, I just felt the need to say something. While I was staring at the snowfall, words from a real smart guy came to mind. It goes like this: -- ‘What you have is greater than what you want. And what is urgent is not always what matters.’* -- Let me ask you. Do you realize that tomorrow is Christmas?” Sam didn’t know if he was supposed to stay in character or not. He decided to play it safe. “You mean we’re still in December?” he said.
“Barely,” Meryl said. “I’ll have you know that I have been away from my wife and two girls for the last three Christmases. As often as I can, I take ‘em with me, but here we are in Montana, 30 miles from the nearest road and 110 miles from the nearest town… which is in Canada!
“And, you know what’s pathetic? I act like it’s no big deal. I get so caught up by everything that’s happening to me that I lose sight of the important stuff. My wife. My kids. My God. The misplaced birthday of someone I consider to be my hope in this life and in the next one. At sunrise it will be Christmas, and I’m out here with you two yahoos. Don’t get me wrong. You’re good company. Cowboy Number Three, I don’t know a lot about you, but I consider the guy who’s playing you a true friend. As for my buddy here who’s playing Vargus, I’ve gotta say that you’re acting your butt off, because I happen to know that you’re one of nicest persons I know.
“But something is missing here. And, if it’s okay with y’all I’m going to say a prayer about it.” Frank and Sam cautiously glanced at Martin and received the go ahead nod. “My heavenly Father,” Meryl started. “I have been so tied up with ME, that I too easily lost sight of the best that you’ve given me. This career of each of those present, and all the acclaim we undeservedly get is too short-lived to earn the priority we’ve given it. But the promise you’ve given us through Your Son is beyond all of that. It is forever. And for that I’m truly grateful. Thank You, for the birth of Your Son, for His life, and His death that set us free. I don’t understand the reasoning behind it, and I’m fairly sure I never will this side of heaven. But, you’ve made me to believe it.
“I ask that you bless my friends here. Help us all to see the wonder that light creates on falling snow. Bless my family, my kiddos and my darling Charlotte. And, please forgive me for the neglect I’ve given You and to those who mean so much to me. It’s in Your Son’s name I pray. Amen.”
There was about three seconds of silence, but Martin let the cameras roll. “Okay, Vargus, let’s do this thing,” the stranger said. Sam nodded, took the leather glove off his right hand and reached under his coat as he began to stand. The stranger’s gun sounded at the same time a small plastic bag of red syrup exploded near the bottom edge of Vargus’ skunk hat. The outlaw stumbled two short steps forward, three back and then collapsed. -- “Cut!”
The movie was a big success. The most popular part was the scene at the end that followed all the credits. It was where the three cowboys were seated around the campfire, and the stranger said a prayer. The scene made it to YouTube even before the movie went to Red Box. The prayer endeared Meryl to many of his fans, but it did chase away a few. And, some of those who didn’t know enough not to like Meryl, now knew enough. Seems Christianity has taken a hit from a number of argumentative believers who merely act the role.
Meryl’s career slowed a bit. He quit Westerns all together. His wife and kids and parts of both families spent the following Christmas at a ranch house near Alpine, Texas. The food was good, the coffee great, and it snowed on Christmas Day.
* Max Lucado was the author of the quote.
You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org