When I started THE COWBOY WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS, I knew it would be a historical set in 1867, starting in a small inland port when Trapper Hawkins takes a job to haul freight. The pay is good, maybe enough to give him a start, but the cargo is five girls.
I’ve driven the roads from Jefferson, Texas to Dallas many times. But this time, in my mind, I was making the journey in a wagon with outlaws determined to kidnap my cargo, the little girls.
The story came alive in my mind and I laughed then cried, then fell in love with my characters. I learned to survive in the untamed land and fight off outlaws.
I drove as the story played out in my head. In three hours I’d covered a month by wagon while fighting storms and hunting for my supper every night.
By the time I stopped in Dallas and pulled into a hotel, my head was packed. It took me two months to write it all down and I think “Father Goose,” the story of one broken soldier and a runaway woman risking their lives to save five little girls may very well be my favorite short story ever.
Celebrate the holiday by making the journey across Texas with me this Christmas.
The Cowboy Who Saved Christmas by Jodi Thomas, Sharla Lovelace, & Scarlett Dunn
Excerpt from “Father Goose” by Jodi Thomas
Trapper spent the morning preparing for his new job as if it was an assignment during the war. He studied maps, learned a bit about his employer, the girls’ father, Colonel Gunter Chapman. He’d been an officer in the Mexican–American War back in the 1840s.He was ruthless and came home with injuries. But that hadn’t stopped him from moving farther west from the protection of even the forts and starting a huge ranch.
Trapper had seen that kind of man many times in the war. A king on his land.
Trapper bought clothes for winter, a new hat and a warm coat from his winnings last night. He’d worn most of his clothes too long for them to be presentable. Now, when he got to Dallas, he’d be dressed more like a cowboy, a Westerner. And, if the raiders killed him along the way, he’d have a fine funeral outfit.
Walking toward the dock, he planned. He’d meet the little ladies, tell them the rules for the trip, and get underway. He decided he only needed three rules. One: Be ready to travel at sunup. Two: Stop at midday for thirty minutes to rest, take care of private needs, and drink water. Three: At sundown make camp. He’d cook a meal of whatever he shot along the way or use the supplies.
When Trapper had checked the wagon, he noticed the teamster hadn’t packed but two blankets, so he bought the girls each one. After all, they were little girls, and they’d need comfort.
He also added apples and canned peaches to his load.
Trapper was feeling hopeful about the journey. He’d bought two extra rifles and several boxes of bullets. He’d get these girls home safe and collect his five hundred dollars. Then he’d drive away in his new wagon with Midnight tied to the back.
A man who has a wagon, a horse, and enough money in his pocket to buy land was rich indeed. For the first time since the war he allowed himself to dream. He thought about something besides surviving one more day.
As he waited, he saw a small widow lady sitting on a bench near the dock. Trapper remembered the teamster had told him to hire a woman to travel with him, but surely he could handle five little girls.
There were so many women in black right after the war, it seemed like every woman dressed the same. Strange, he thought; the men wore blue and gray, but all the widows wore black. Mourning had no side, no color.
The paddleboat pulled up to yells and waves from the waiting crowd. As cargo began to roll off the side, passengers walked off the front in a thin line. It wasn’t long before he saw a tall woman in a light blue cape marching with five little girls behind her. She had to be the nurse traveling with his cargo. They all wore a uniform of sunny blue and white. They reminded him of a mother goose and her goslings. He guessed he was about to become the father goose.
Trapper had no doubt these were his charges. The first girl was tall, only a head shorter than the nurse. Her blond hair was tied back, as if she was trying to look older. The next two were shorter, with auburn hair. The younger and thinner of the pair wore an old wool cap and seemed to be crying. The fourth girl was probably about five and was round as a goose egg. The last one, and the smallest, seemed to be having trouble staying in line. She weaved back and forth as she kept jumping up and down as if she could see everything if she was two inches higher.
Trapper straightened and removed his wide-brimmed hat. There were several families meeting travelers, but he was the only man standing alone in front of a small covered wagon. Eventually, the nurse would find him.
The tall woman weaved her way around groups of people and the girls followed in a row. Well, all but the last one followed. The littlest one seemed to be having trouble keeping up.
Finally, the lady noticed him and headed his way. She stopped three feet from him and the girls lined up behind her. Except number five, who bumped into four and almost knocked two and three out of line.
“Are you the driver for Colonel Chapman’s girls?” The woman’s voice was cold and held no hint of a Southern accent.
“I am.” Trapper bowed slightly, not sure what to say or do. He decided to keep the poker game quiet. “I’m Trapper Hawkins, ma’am.”
“I understood there would be a nurse traveling with you to take care of the girls’ needs.”
He thought of saying he could handle them, but for the first time he wasn’t sure. Number five had lost her shoe and was starting to cry. The tall one, number one in the line, was glaring at him and the chubby one, number four, was laying her head on one shoulder, then the other, as if trying to see if he might look better from another angle.
“Mr. Hawkins, I’m sure you got the instructions. I assure you I will not be releasing my charges to you until you fulfill your part of the bargain. A woman to tend to their needs is essential.”
He thought of giving up. Letting the oh-so-proper lady take them back. They’d be safer on the boat, if the rumors were true. “If I don’t have a lady with me, you planning to turn around?”
“No. I’m going to file charges on you for breach of contract. Then I’ll notify the girls’ father and wait here until proper escort can be arranged. Colonel Chapman will not be happy if his exact orders are not followed.”
Trapper didn’t even know if there was a crime called breach of contract in Texas. They had too many murders, robbers, and cattle thieves to mess with a breach of anything.
The woman pushed out her chest and made her stand. “If the colonel doesn’t have his daughters home by Christmas, there will be hell to pay.”
Trapper had no idea what she was talking about. He was starting to look forward to the outlaws on the trail.
“I’m loaded and ready, ma’am. I’ll get them to Dallas.”
She opened her mouth to fill him in on all the facts when number five started limp-walking on one shoe and fell over her bag. Her foot went through the handle, so now she limped with one leg and dragged the bag with the other.
He just watched her. This last kid had the coordination of a day-old calf.
To no one’s surprise, the tiny girl started crying.
The chubby one, number four in line, started to help the littlest one up, but the nurse cleared her throat so loudly several people turned in her direction.
Number four looked like she might cry too, but she let go of number five.
The nurse said to him in her lecture voice, “We don’t baby our girls. Not even the littlest one. Understood? These girls are Texas princesses. Born in this wild state. They’ll grow up to be strong women, not crybabies.”
Trapper thought of pushing the nurse off the dock and seeing how strong she was, but he figured she’d file charges for that too.
Before anyone could move, a lady in black knelt down and lifted number five off the dock, freed her foot from the bag, and cradled the crying girl in her arms. “Come sit on the back of the wagon, child, and I’ll put your shoe back on. It’s far too cold a day to go without it.”
The nurse glared at the woman for a moment, then seemed to relax. “I see the traveling companion for the girls has finally arrived. She’ll be too soft on the girls and we’ll have our work cut out for us when they come back to school in February. However, it is good to see you picked a proper lady.”
As the widow tied the little girl’s shoe, the nurse stepped away to direct the luggage to be loaded into the wagon.
Trapper leaned toward the widow. “Lady, if you have the time, would you act like you’re traveling with me? Just till we get out of sight of that woman. I got to get these girls to Dallas and I’m not sure that nurse will let me do my job without a proper lady traveling with us.”
“I was going to Dallas also.” The widow’s voice was low, almost a whisper. “The stage doesn’t seem to be running this week. If you’ll let me ride along with you, I’ll play the part all the way.”
Trapper was shocked. “You would?”
She nodded. “I’d be safer with you and five girls than traveling alone. If you prove to be a not-so-honorable man, I have a weapon and will shoot you.”
He smiled. Her voice had a bit of the South in it and she could shoot. She had to be a born Texan. They understood each other. If he broke his word, she’d shoot him, no breach of contract needed.
“I’m Mrs. Adams.”
Trapper removed his hat. “I’m Trapper Hawkins. You’re doing me a great favor, ma’am.”
The nurse came back as men finished loading the wagon. “I’d like to introduce my little ladies before I leave them with you.”
She started with the oldest. “Catherine Claire, thirteen. Anna Jane, eleven. Elizabeth Rose, ten. Helen Wren five.” The nurse pointed to the smallest, still in the widow’s arms. “Sophia May is four. Colonel Chapman had three wives. All died in childbirth and none gave him a son. Poor man.”
Trapper studied them as the nurse gave instructions to Mrs. Adams and marched back to the boat. The tallest daughter, with her blond hair, would probably be from the first wife. Two and Three from a redheaded wife. And Four and Five from the third wife. He’d guess that wife had brown hair and big brown eyes.
Trapper turned to his charges. “Look, little ladies, I doubt I’ll straighten those names out in three weeks, so how about I call you in order by number?” He pointed to the tall blonde, first in line. “One.” Then the two auburn-haired girls. “Two and Three.” He smiled at the next and couldn’t help but laugh as she giggled, waiting for her number. “Four,” he said, touching her nose. The tiny one waited for her new name. “You’re Five. It’s a game we’ll play.” He glanced at the widow. “A secret game. Like code names.”
When he noticed the widow asked no questions, he added, “Only we have to call her Mrs. Adams. She deserves our respect. She lost her man in the war.”
All the girls nodded except Five. She was spinning around again like an unbalanced top.