Surprise ending to holiday story
December 19, 2007
Editor's note: Following is the conclusion of a two-part fictional Christmas story submitted by Doug Hunter.
Hunter, a writer and historian, wrote a series of popular columns about Capac's history in commemoration of the village's sesquicentennial celebration this past summer. The first part appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of the Tri-City Times.
The tired oxen moved slowly but steadily through the drifted snow. Taken from their normal routine of pulling felled trees from the forests, they were not pressed into service on a mission of extreme importance. They hauled a bobsled laden with not only mail but supplies that would sustain the settlers, and gifts to bring joy on this bleak Christmas.
Squinting, the teamster saw a form ahead standing as still as the night. As he cracked the whip, the oxen picked up their pace. As they moved closer the driver recognized the shape of a man. With his command to halt, the oxen stopped and he raised his lantern. The sight before him brought an instant smile to his face.
Dressed in a Union blue uniform with a beard frosted white stood the pride of the young nation. With jubilation the teamster said "Merry Christmas and get on board! This sleigh is not as fast as reindeer but it's better than walking. And the end result is the same."
The soldier grinned as he jumped up on the seat. He said to the driver, "I always believed in Santa Claus but never thought I'd get to meet him!"
The oxen now moved forward at a brisk pace as if they sensed the importance of their mission.
The night was alive with the sound of bells as the settlers converged from every direction. Their destination was the hotel which would serve as their church on this Christmas Eve. The building bustled with activity as the slab wood tables were moved aside and chairs were lined up in neat rows. As people arrived, the innkeeper and his wife greeted them at the door with cups of fresh eggnog dipped from a crock. Sarah rushed from the cutter past them filled with excitement.
As the sleigh bells faded into the distance the creature began to move toward the cooling turkey sitting atop the table. Its claws easily climbed up the pine chair and then with a leap it was on the surface of the table. In a frenzy, the claws ripped at the succulent meat. As it began to eat, its tiny eyes caught sight of the cold stare from the black cat. Scurrying he raced to the only safety within his limited view, right into the stuffing-filled feast. The cat, with a ferocity way beyond its size, batted the bird and it fell to the floor, knocking the frightened beast from its warm sanctuary. Bounding up the wall onto the windowsill, it sought cover behind the burning lantern.
On the floor the cat tore into the Christmas feast. Realizing that his quarry had escaped he scoured the small cabin with his keen eyesight. Just the smallest movement let the cat know where its prey was hiding and it was instantly airborne. The impact knocked the lamp from the window sill and the cabin was soon engulfed in flames.
Opening his door to retrieve some firewood, Josh saw the inferno as it lit up the night sky. Knowing that it was the home of a fellow soldier he quickly ran toward the flames leaving his door open and forgetting his protective scarf.
No one noticed the whinnying horses as they all sang 'Silent Night.' When their voices stilled several men near the door heard the alarmed animals and went to check on them. The fire by now illuminated the night sky and mirrored itself against the ice-encrusted trees. Frantically the men yelled "Fire!" stopping the pastor as he began the Christmas sermon. He quickly dismissed the gathering and all exited the hotel.
Ushering Laura and Sarah out, John Smith could see whose home was ablaze. Hurriedly he helped them up onto the cutter and then seating himself he took the reins and urged the old mare into motion. Soon a line of sleighs proceeded toward the blaze and the night was once again alive with the sound of ringing bells.
Arriving at the cabin Josh realized that he would not be able to put out the flames. He ran to the barn and released the animals, closing the door behind them. A sense of despair engulfed him as the tiny cabin disappeared.
As the oxen moved through the snow the driver spoke.
"What's your name, soldier?"
The man answered, "They call me Philip."
"I'm known as Sandy," the driver said.
The soldier replied, "I thought the mail was hauled by horses."
"It was," the driver said, "until all the fit horses were drafted for the war effort."
As they reached the crest of a hill the oxen stopped dead in their tracks. The sight far below them was out of the ordinary. The night was alive with firelight and a string of lantern-lit sleighs in a row moving toward the blaze. Above their heads the whip cracked and the driver bellowed "Git!" This brought them out of their trance and they began to move toward the chaos.
Josh suddenly realized that he was surrounded by the villagers. The mute and shocked crowd encircled him and he tried to cover his scarred face. Peeping through his fingers he sought escape, but there was none.
"You okay, Josh?" John Smith asked.
In response, Josh pushed firmly away and finally escaped. He rapidly made his way toward the safety of his cabin. Laura yelled, "Hey, come back! We didn't get to thank you for saving our animals!"
Fear flooded him and he began to run. After he disappeared into the darkness Sarah spoke.
"Mother, I hope Santa was here and let Eby out," she said. "I don't care about presents. I just want Eby safe. And my one Christmas wish to come true."
Her mother, well used to the harsh realities of frontier life, hugged her daughter as tears cascaded down her cheeks.
"Let's get you two out of the cold," said John Smith as he helped Laura and Sarah back up into the cutter.
As he stood up in the sleigh he spoke so all could hear.
"I'm taking these ladies to my cabin. I think you should all remember that this is the season of giving when you return to services."
With a jingle, the sleigh was gone into the darkness. Sarah looked back over her shoulder at what little remained of her home.
Slamming the door shut, Josh shivered in the still of his cabin. He shoved wood into his stove and dropped into his rocker, exhausted by the night's events. He wasn't aware of his guest until it leapt onto his lap. The animal was singed, but otherwise in good shape.
The village men were busy splitting and hewing the cedar trees throughout the night. With only lantern light they loaded wagons with logs and the necessary hardware to build a homestead. The women were busy as well making clothing to replace all that was lost in the fire. As Laura tried to sleep, she was not aware of all the activity. Her mind was full of worry about her and Sarah's future and the well-being of her soldier husband.
The creature remained in the barn, hidden away from all the night's activity. The roasted turkey was now just a pleasant memory.
As the sun barely broke the horizon, the villagers young and old began their tasks.
At the Smith cabin, John began to harness the old mare with a new resolve. Sarah yelled out the door, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Smith!"
"Merry Christmas to you, Sarah," John replied.
"Is she ready to take us out to the farm?" Sarah asked.
"She's rarin' to go!" answered John. He thought to himself 'Christmas is really a celebration of good will that brings mankind together.'
The new cabin was halfway up by the time Sarah, Laura and John arrived. The true spirit of the season overwhelmed them as they surveyed the scene.
"Mother, we have a new house!" exclaimed Sarah as the villagers gathered around them. Will, the postmaster and store owner, announced that the town folks had worked all night and since this was the season of giving, all had donated what they could to the family in need.
Suddenly a young man with a scarf tied around his face pushed through the crowd. Clutched tightly in his arms was a blanket. Holding out the blanket to Sarah he said, "I found this cat in my house last night. I thought he might belong to you."
Sarah squealed in delight as Eby was given to her. In the exchange, the scarf slipped from the man's face and the scars of war were revealed.
John Smith said quickly, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Josh. We should all applaud him for the sacrifices he has made for us."
As the crowd burst into cheers, Sarah hugged the man to show her gratitude for the safe return of her beloved Eby.
In all the excitement no one except Sarah saw the mail sleigh arrive and the man in the blue uniform walk up to the celebration. With tears in her eyes she ran to her father and jumped into his arms. When her mother reached them and they all stood together Sarah said, "I was worried that Santa wouldn't get here, but I see him in the faces of each one of you. He doesn't always have to be dressed in red! And he's granted my wish—my family is all together again! Merry Christmas!"
Meanwhile, the beast did what all good mice do. He slipped into the wagon of Will, the store owner, and lived a very good life.
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