December 12, 2007
Editor's note: This is the first of a two part fictional Christmas story submitted by Doug Hunter of Lynn Twp. Hunter, a writer and historian, wrote a series of popular columns to commemorate Capac's sesquicentennial celebration this year. The Capac Journal, which eventually became part of the Tri-City Times, was founded by Hunter's great grandfather Noble Hunter in 1887.
As the sun rose over the snow covered forests and swamps, so did the anticipation and anxiety. It was Christmas Eve and all were excited, from the smallest creatures of the woods to the inhabitants of the scattered log cabins making up the sleeping town.
Sarah hurriedly did the morning chores, feeding the chickens and then the horses in the barn. Sam, the largest of the team, whinnied and Sarah thought even he seemed to know what day it was. Her last chore was to milk old Bessie, something her father had taught her to do before he left for the war. As the milk hit the bucket, Sarah tried to mimic the rhythm of "Jingle Bells," but the "splat" rang hollow. It was not to be a joyous holiday season for Sarah had a heavy heart. Her mind was preoccupied with worry for the welfare of her father and her family.
In the cabin, Ebony the cat nervously paced. Something was amiss. What evil the black feline anticipated was not evident to Sarah's mother Laura as she made preparations for the evening celebration. The turkey she had snared in the woods was roasting. This and the cranberries from the bog were to be the staples of the evening meal. She felt lucky to have these things for times were tough for the family. When the young nation called, all able-bodied men had gone to fight. Those left behind had quickly learned to rely on each other.
In the barn a furry creature watched as Sarah filled the pail with warm, rich milk. The cold blustery weather had driven him inside. His dark, beady eyes were fixed on the girl as she finished the milking.
As Sarah rose from her task a strange feeling came over her. She felt as though she was not alone in the old barn, as if someone was watching. She strained to see but in the poor light of the early morning nothing caught her eye. Frightened, she hurried across the snowy ground to the cabin, being careful not to spill the precious milk. After one last glance behind her she stepped into the warmth and slammed the door.
The creature moved from the barn to the woodpile by the cabin. This offered cover until the time was right for its next move.
At 76, neighbor John Smith was like a godfather to the settlers. Recently widowed, it was proving difficult to live alone so John kept busy helping all who needed it. On this morning as he went about his usual chores, his thoughts went back to Christmases of long ago. He seemed to have a real purpose then, not like now when he could only offer advice and limited physical assistance.
Struggling, he placed the harness on the old mare. Each time seemed more difficult and she waited patiently as he then put on the bridle. Once in position, the mare contentedly began to eat the hay in the manger.
"It's gonna be a long day and late night so eat up," the old man murmured as he sat down to rest.
"Mother, do we need more wood for the fire?" asked 10-year-old Sarah, thinking of the rewards given to good children at Christmas.
"No, we have plenty. I don't want you getting all dirty," Laura replied. "But fill the lamp with oil. It will be dark before you know it. These days are too short."
She hoped Sarah couldn't see how lonely she felt. Christmas should be a time of joy but it was more difficult by the day to feel it. Laura was determined to keep her spirits up for Sarah's sake. She wanted her daughter to have happy memories of the holiday as she did from her own childhood.
Getting up from his short rest, John Smith picked up the reins and took the mare from her stall. After hitching her up to the cutter he climbed up on the cold bench seat. Gently slapping the reins he said, "Gee, Maude, gee."
The trusted old steed turned right and headed toward the village. As they rode along, John admired the breathtaking beauty of the snow and ice covered wilderness. He thought to himself that it was a picture he would like to remember forever. The smoke from the chimneys came into view and with it the smell of cedar and oak burning. As they neared the general store and post office, the mare slowed her pace. As they reached the hitching post she responded to the man's "Haw, Maude, haw," and came to a stop.
"Morning, Will! Any mail?" John asked as he entered the building.
"No, there must be a storm somewhere. It's been four days since any mail got through," replied the postmaster.
"That's a shame," said John. "A lot of folks are waiting for presents from family and letters from their men off at war."
"I know," said Will, "but there's not much I can do about the weather."
"Yep, I know," John replied. "See you tonight at services."
Outside, Maude's breath made white, puffy clouds as she stood waiting patiently. As John climbed back up on the seat and took up the reins, she instinctively began to back away from the post and turned toward home, this time with no commands necessary.
John said a silent prayer that the mail would reach town. He knew of the desperate need of all the community for a word from those off defending the young nation. He thought of Laura and her daughter Sarah. They deserve a merry Christmas, he decided.
Patiently the creature waited for the door to open. He could smell the aroma of the turkey roasting as it drifted out through the cracks around the door. Soon when darkness fell the door would open. He would then be able to invade the cabin.
Meanwhile the sun was setting and a gentle snow began to fall. In his cabin, Josh stoked the fire and watched as the snowflakes slowly came to rest. His thoughts returned to the battlefield as they did many times a day. The explosion that had disfigured his face was still a vivid memory as if it happened yesterday. His days were now spent alone. The reaction from those seeing his scars made it easier just to avoid them.
A knock at the door drew Josh's attention away from his thoughts.
"Josh, are you in there?" asked John Smith.
"Yes, I'm coming John," Josh said as he drew a scarf over his face. As Josh opened the door John told him that tonight was the Christmas service and he would be happy to give him a lift.
"I won't be going but I appreciate the offer," Josh said.
"You can't just stay away from folks forever, especially at Christmas," John said. "Well, merry Christmas, Josh."
As the door closed John felt a deep sense of despair for the scarred man. War has a way of ruining lives and creating unhappiness all around us, he thought.
"Mother, when will Mr. Smith be here?" asked Sarah.
"Just after dark," Laura said.
"And when will Santa come?" the young girl asked.
"I don't know with the weather and all," Laura answered.
Hearing the voices the creature became alert. His anticipation rose as the smells of the holiday meal filled his nostrils.
Back at home John hooked the bells onto old Maude. The jingle seemed to please her and she began a slow canter back toward the village. The bells formed a rhythm with the sound of the horse's hooves as they struck the frozen earth. As they traveled along they made music for all to enjoy on this Christmas Eve.
"Mother! Mother! I hear sleigh bells!" yelled Sarah as she raced to the single window of the dwelling. "Is it Santa or Mr. Smith?"
As the sleigh drew up Sarah and her mother saw that it was John and hurried for their winter wraps.
"Blow out the lamp, Sarah. That oil is expensive," Laura said.
"But Mother, we should leave a lamp on in case Father or Santa comes!" Sarah said.
"Alright, but turn it lower and set it in the window," her mother said.
Seeing the light shining out onto the snow, the creature crouched lower. The hinges on the door squeaked as Sarah opened and yelled "Merry Christmas, Mr. Smith!" As they passed through the doorway the creature's yellow teeth shone in the lamplight. As the door began to close it paused, and then leapt.
Pick up the Dec. 19 edition of the Tri-City Times for the conclusion of Doug Hunter's fictional Christmas story.