Dad returned from Albuquerque late Christmas Eve. He said there'd been only a dusting of snow and it looked like Christmas was going to be as dry as the rest of the year 1905.
He'd traded his pistol for fifty pounds of beans, twenty-five pounds of flour, a side of bacon, and a box of rifle shells. He said we'd survive.
I was afraid to get up Christmas morning, because surprises and Christmas went together for an eight-year-old girl. And surprises were going to be as dry as the rest of the year unless I made them.
I already had one hidden in the woodshed. With a nail I'd scratched on a wood scrap: To The Best Mom And Dad, Mery Crismus 1905, Love Corrie. Then I'd rubbed ash in the letters to make them stand out. But I hadn't wrapped it yet.
I stayed in bed, because Dad left to go hunting just before dawn. I didn't want him catching me getting my surprise.
I thought about the best Christmas I remembered. When I was five we'd had good crops of corn, cotton, pigs, and chickens. And even though winter started rough we had more than we needed.
That same winter a terrible blizzard raged for two days and smothered everything white by Christmas Eve. Early Christmas day we heard a thud on the front door. Dad opened the door and found an old man almost frozen in the snow. Dad helped the fellow struggle to the wood stove and pulled out a chair.
His beard and mustache were frosted and his hair coated with snow. Ice crystals hung all over his coat and pants. They soaked the rag rug on the kitchen floor as he thawed. A damp smell kept me a good distance away. Mom got him some of Dad's old clothes and he changed in my room.
"You can call me Hard Times," he said with a gravelly voice.
By his face you could tell that he had been through lots of hard times; wherever there wasn't hair there were wrinkles, more wrinkles than crevices on a mountain.
He had a loud laugh and funny half-star wrinkles that beamed next to his eyes when he smiled. I think he enjoyed watching me unwrap my first real doll as much as I did. "I'll name her Molly," I said in a hushed voice.
Hard times left us the next day with memories of old mines, Indians, and buffalo. He said we'd saved his life. Mom said, "That's what Christmas is all about."
I snuggled deeper into the covers, enjoying my memories. The slam of the front door told me dad had returned from his hunt. In the kitchen he whispered that he hadn't bagged a thing, and wanted to kill the old rooster for Christmas dinner. But Mom insisted we needed him. We only had two hens left.
The mixed smell of beans and tortillas hung in the air. My stomach growled. Then I remembered my surprise. Hopefully Dad hadn't discovered it in the woodshed.
I slipped out of my nightgown into my dress and coat. I stopped only to pick up Molly doll from the floor. Now three years old, her porcelain face was cracked and creased from being glued and reglued. I set her carefully on the corner shelf above my bed and rushed past Mom and Dad toward the front door.
"Where are you going, girl?" Mom said, "You haven't got your shoes on and breakfast is almost ready."
"But . . . "
"You haven't even looked under the tree, either," Dad said.
Two brown-wrapped packages lay under the pinon tree that Mom had said was too big. In the tree's shadow the presents looked like a little pile of dried leaves.
"You can open them after breakfast," Dad said.
"But I haven't put your present under the tree."
"It'll wait," Mom said. "Get your shoes and come eat."
We ate breakfast and I took the leftovers to Rowdy our dog. I hurried into the woodshed, found my present, and held it behind my back when I entered the house.
"What are you doing, Corrie?" Mom asked.
"It's time to read the Christmas story and open the presents," Dad said.
"Just a minute." I wrapped my present in the wet dishcloth and put it under the tree.
We sat around the table as Dad read the Christmas story from our old family Bible.
Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus hadn't had much that first Christmas, I thought, at least not until the Wise Men came.
"Father," I prayed silently, "Send us some Wise Men. But we don't need any gold, frankincense or myrrh. You know what we need."
After Dad finished the story, he prayed and thanked God for helping us through the drought.
I was puzzled how Dad could thank the Lord so much when we had so little.
Suddenly Rowdy started barking and howling outside like I never heard. Rowdy was a tail-wagger and a licker, not a barker.
I rushed out the front door before Dad had time to say "amen." I hadn't gone two steps before I screamed "There's monsters at the spring!"
There, drinking from the spring trough were three humpy and bumpy creatures. A big bearded one turned his head and stared right at me. It looked like it was smiling.
"My Lord," Mother gasped, "It's camels."
"One has a pack on," Dad said, "I've heard stories about wild camels still being around these parts. But why would that one be carrying a pack?"
"I prayed for the Wise Men to come," I said. "I'll go look for them."
Mother grabbed me and shoved me toward the door. "You're going in the house with me, young lady."
We watched from the window as Dad tied Rowdy. Then he took a bundle of grass hay and spread it around near the corral corner post.
Mom frowned. "We need that for the horse. What does he think he's doing?"
Dad took two more hay bundles and spread it around two other corral posts. The camels kept drinking.
Finally the smallest one moved toward the corner post and started eating. Dad didn't look pleased. He was waiting on the inside of the corral with a coiled rope.
When the camel put its head up he threw a loop. The loop bounced off the camel's ears and scared it back to the spring.
Dad hunched down in the corral waiting for another chance. The bearded camel with the pack edged toward the corner post munching his way along. The camel raised its head and this time Dad didn't miss. The camel didn't jump or start, but grunted when Dad pulled and tied the rope around the post.
Each time the camel relaxed Dad snugged the rope tighter, until the camel's chin was almost touching the top rail. With a stick he tapped gently on the camel's back shin. The camel lowered itself to the ground obeying Dad's stick command.
Mom and I looked at each other in astonishment. Where had Dad learned that?
Reaching between the rails Dad untied and unloaded the pack. He pulled out bag after bag and dropped them inside the corral. He carried a load toward the house walking slowly with his eyes on the other camels.
Mother opened the door and he dumped the bags on the kitchen floor. The bags smelled almost as bad as Hard Times had.
Mom and I began unpacking the cloth bags on the kitchen table. Dad kept bringing bags in. It must have taken him five or six trips. By the time he finished we already had coffee, salt, sugar and various canned goods on the table.
Dad stood at the window. "They're all eating now." He walked to the table shaking his head. "I can't believe it."
Mom unpacked three different colors of fabric and crockery dishes. When she pulled out a new doll with a porcelain face I let out a yell. I grabbed the doll and the bag thunked to the floor.
Dad reached down and picked it up.
Mother and I were busy admiring the doll, when we heard Dad whoop. He pushed the canned goods aside and cleared space on the table. The coins clicked on the smooth, worn surface; four twenty-dollar gold pieces, more money than I had ever seen.
Mom was dazed. "We can't keep all this."
"But I prayed for it," I said.
Mom and Dad whispered while I played with the doll. I was shocked when they started putting things back in the bags. They even put in some of our beans and flour.
"We'll need that," Dad protested as Mom took two gold coins and put them in with canned goods.
"We have more than we need," Mom said.
I went to the window. "Two of the Wise Men are gone," I said. Only the tied camel remained. I held the doll tight. I'd decided to call her Polly.
"At least I don't have to worry about them when I repack," Dad said.
Mom puzzled over the fabric, caressing each roll.
Dad repacked half of everything, plus our beans and flour. He hadn't said anything about the doll, the dishes, or the fabric.
We watched from the window as Dad loosened the rope to let the camel go. The camel grunted when it stood.
"Hey, hey!" someone shouted from the ridge behind the house. The voice echoed down the valley.
Dad looked up. Mom and I walked out into the yard.
A man was scrambling down the slope almost running between the pinon and juniper trees. Rocks clinked like broken glass as he slipped and almost fell.
"Hey," he called again. "Don't turn him loose."
"It's Hard Times!" I yelled.
Dad tied the rope and joined us as we walked toward the slope.
Hard Times puffed and tried to catch his breath. "Where'd you find my camel?"
Dad shook his hand. "He wandered in with two others."
"He must have smelled 'em," Hard Times said, "'cause he went crazy night before last and broke loose."
"I'm sure it was a female and her half-grown calf," Dad said.
"See you got the doll." Hard Times tussled my hair. "I figured Molly would be wore out by now."
"You mean all of that was for us!" Mom said.
"Yes, it was to pay back for saving my life. I know farming's been bad this year, but prospectin's been good."
"But it's too much," Mom said.
"No, it's not. You helped me before and, see, you helped me again. How'd you get him unpacked?"
We all looked at Dad.
"I saw a man handle a camel in a circus when I was a boy."
"You probably know as much about handlin' them as I do." Hard Times scratched his beard. "What I can't figure is why it wandered here."
"The Wise Men brought it," I said.
Mom and Dad laughed. Hard Times looked at me sideways.
"I'll tell you over Christmas Dinner," Dad said. He put one hand on Hard Times' shoulder and the other on mine. "But first we've got some presents to unwrap."
Mom, Dad, and Hard Times turned toward the house. I ran to the woodshed. I knew where there was another board and I was going to make another surprise. But I wondered, how do you spell Hard Times?
My great-grandmother lived and died in New Mexico. I'd like to think that she could have told me this story, because camels actually lived in New Mexico for a time.
In 1856, Lt. Edward F. Beal led a successful expedition from San Antonio, Texas to California. The Civil War disrupted the camel experiment and the camels were auctioned off in 1866. Many were sold to circuses. Miners, ranchers, and mail carriers purchased others. Many escaped to roam as "phantoms of the desert." The last confirmed sighting of a wild camel in the Southwest was in 1941