He leaned in his rocker to jab at a log in the fireplace, sending sparks and crackles up the flue. His gnarled fingers held his poker with a deftness of years of hard work. His wry grin, born of years of teasing his wife.
“She’d always scold me whenever I did that.’You’ll set the chimney on fire, she’d say’ She’s right ya know. I shouldn’t do it. But ain’t it pretty?” He rocked back, I watched him watch the sparks, then close his eyes. The flames yellow glow danced on his weathered face. His grin faded to a peaceful smile. He was remembering her. They’d shared a lifetime together, even though hers ended long before he was ready.
“I reckon everybody’ll be rollin’ in just after daybreak, tomorrow.” He didn’t open his eyes or allow the smile to fade.
“Son, I ever tell ya about your mom and my first Christmas together?” Of course he had, and lately he’d tell me every Christmas Eve.
I’d been spending more time here at the ranch the past few years, and always made sure to get here by noon Christmas Eve. My brother and his wife, and their two boys had taken over the reins of running the outfit years earlier, and had built a new house where we gather now for holidays. But I liked sitting with Grandpop, everyone started calling him that when my brother’s first son was born, here in the old house on Christmas Eve.
He tapped his fingers on the rocker arm. “I suppose it’s more than 70 years ago now. Just got home from the war, I was cowboyin’ for the Hartwell spread.” He sat upright, focused deep in my eyes. “Boy howdy, it had been a hot dry summer. We’d lost half the herd in a range fire. Just awful.” He shook his head and poked the fire.
“Winter had come at us just as hard. By Thanksgiving we had twenty inches of snow. Poor cows were walkin’ with the wind looking for frozen grass where the wind blew the snow clear. Most places it was too deep for ’em to scratch through. We were scattering hay cubes every day just to keep them poor critters alive. We had to tie rails on the wheels so the teams could drag the wagon through the snow.
“We were headin’ in on Christmas Eve, ol’ Slim and me. We were plumb wore out. So were the horses. Dang cows had found a hollow to hol’ up in some ten miles from the ranch and it was mighty tough goin’.”
Granpop broke into a laugh. “Ol’ Slim had himself all wrapped up in the tarp bellyaching he didn’t have enough meat on his bones to take this cold weather. I was drivin’, mostly lettin’ the horses pick their way home, when all of a sudden they just stopped and stared off into the blowing snow.
“First I figured it was a bunch of cows or horses seekin’ shelter, and I tried to hurry the team on. Then, squintin’ into the stinging snow I saw this tiny black spec, movin’ towards us. After a bit I could make out what was a rider. A rider and a pack horse. Out in this? I was sure it was a crazy person, or a desperate one. I steered the team to intercept.” Grandpop paused, pointed a finger my way. “This was no weather to be out in, and it was only an hour ’til dark.
“It seemed the rider wanted to meet up with us too, for it changed its headin’ and angled right for us. I rousted Slim from his nest; the wind grabbed his tarp and tried its best to blow him airborne!
“The rider stopped beside us. The pack horse had a good jag of firewood strapped to it. All bundled and covered I couldn’t make out if it was even a human settin’ that horse, imagine my surprise when a woman’s voice floated out from under all that snow and blanket! – ‘Hey, are you clean outa your mind?’ was the first words I ever said to her … ”
He poked the fire again, sucked in a breath. “She wasn’t outa her mind, no sir. Never once, not a single time in all the years …” He dragged the back of his hand over his eyes. “Always thinking of others, that was her way …
“She moved her horse close, asked who we were, then told us her story. Seemed a farmer’s wife had just had a youngin’ and he’d come to her Daddy’s place for fuel and supplies. I knew then she was that sweet little brunette at the mercantile in town who was all hidden under those blankets. What in tarnation are you doin’ out in this? I remember scoldin’ her. She explained the firewood, ham and flour had to get to the fella’s farm. He had cut his leg bad while splitting extra wood for her Daddy to offset the bill, and nobody else was around to make the journey.
“Ol’ Slim and I weren’t about to let this young gal out there alone, so we turned our tired team around and shepherded her all the way to the farm. As I recall it was a dandy spread.” Grandpop paused and pretended to pick his teeth. “Slim went out to the barn and milked the cows, I stacked the firewood inside and made sure that fireplace and woodstove were ready for cookin’ up a humdinger of a Christmas Eve feast, which that cute brunette cooked up. And by golly did we feast! Way into the night, we ate and talked and ate some more. And boy howdy could that little gal make swell coffee, too!
“The next mornin’, Christmas Day, the storm broke, and I sent ol’ Slim back with the team. I just had to stay behind and see all was well with the new baby, his momma and help that mercantile fella’s daughter with all the work there.” Grandpop settled back in the rocker, his eyes resting on momma’s picture above the mantle. “Christmas was sure enough her time,” he whispered.
READ MORE GRANDPOP STORIES HERE ~ Gitty Up ~ Dutch.
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