Authors: Janette Oke
He finished the biscuit that he was eating. "Guess I can't provide ya with a turkey. Will a roast of venison do?" "I reckon."
"Be kinda hard havin' Christmas alone, won't it?"
"I've been thinkin' on that." Missie said. "Why don't we have the hands in?"
Willie stared at the lines of hanging baby things. "Not much room."
"I know, but we could make do."
"They could come two at a time, I guess."
"That wouldn't be
"How'll ya do it, then?"
"I'll set the food out on the table an' the stove an' we'll just help ourselves and sit wherever we fit--on the stools, on the bed--wherever. I think there's one more stool in the bunkhouse--an' Cookie has one in the cookhouse."
Willie laughed. "You've got yer heart set on it, ain't ya?" Missie lowered her head but made no comment.
"Okay," said Willie, "invite the men."
"Would you invite them, please, Willie? I--I don't see them much."
"Sure, I'll invite 'em. Fer what time?"
"Let's make it one o'clock."
Willie nodded. "An' I'll git ya thet venison roast."
"Could Cookie do the roast in his stove? Then I can have mine free for the other things."
Willie nodded again. "I'll talk to 'im."
Cookie agreed to do the roast, and when the day arrived Missie went to work on the remainder of the meal. She didn't have much to work with but what she lacked in ingredients, she made up for with ingenuity. She had been hoarding some of her mother's preserves for just such a time as this. She opened them now and used some of the fruit to fill tart shells. She prepared some of the last canned carrots and beans from home to go with the roast venison. The only potatoes left were a few precious ones
that she had kept, hoping to plant them in the spring. They looked sorry and neglected, but Missie still prayed that they might have the germ of life left in them. She refused to use any of them now, although the thought of potatoes with the meal made her mouth water. Instead, she baked a big batch of fluffy biscuits and set out her last jar of honey to go with them.
When the men arrived, Cookie proudly carrying his roast of venison, Missie was ready for them.
"Before we eat," Willie said, "I have something else to bring in. We don't have much room, iffen ya noticed"--this brought a guffaw from the men--"so I left it in the other shed."
He soon returned carrying a scrub bush, held upright in a small pail. On its tiny branches hung little bows made from Missie's scraps of yarn.
"Didn't rightly seem like Christmas without a tree," he said apologetically. The men whooped and Missie cried.
When the commotion had died down, Willie moved with difficulty to the middle of the room and led them in prayer:
"Father, we have much to thank You fer. Fer the goodsmellin' food of which we are about to partake; fer the warmth of this little room in which we are to share it; fer friends who are here with us an' those who are far away; fer the memories of other Christmases _spent with those we love; fer Nathan Isaiah, our healthy son; and most of all, God, fer my wife who has blessed us all by givin' us this Christmas. We are reminded thet all of these blessin's are extras. Yer special gift to us on this day was Yer Son. We accept thet Gift with our thanks. Amen."
As the menfolk devoured the tasty and plentiful food, Missie sat quietly. She tried to keep her thoughts from wandering to her parents' home. What would it be like if she could be there, right now? In a house big enough to serve a whole family in comfort, with fresh butter, mashed potatoes, turkey, baked squash, and apple pie topped with whipped cream.
She looked at her plate filled with sliced venison and gravy, canned carrots with no garnish, canned yellow beans, and a biscuit with no butter. However, many days during the last year, she had partaken of even simpler fare. She realized that she was
eating a rather sumptuous feast, in comparison. The men obviously felt it was such; and when it came time for the tarts and coffee, they licked their lips in anticipation. Missie picked her way across the room to check on Nathan. One could barely move without tripping over feet but the close proximity just made it easier for laughing together.
"Son," she whispered to the baby, "you're not gonna remember one thing 'bout this, but I want you to get in on it anyway. Your very first Christmas, and I don't even have anything to give you--but a kiss, an' laughter of friends." She took him in her arms.
After the meal, Missie summoned all of her courage and presented each one of the men with a pair of socks and woolen mittens. She was unprepared for their deep appreciation. She realized that for some of them it may have been their first Christmas gift since they were small boys at home.
Cookie shifted his position to "git outta the smoke from the blasted fire--it's a makin' my eyes water."
Clem swallowed over and over, his Adam's apple lurching up and down.
Missie prayed that none of them would feel embarrassed at having nothing to give in return.
After the men had expressed their thanks as best as they could, Missie began timidly, "Now I want to say thank you for your gift to me."
Five pairs of eyes--six, counting Nathan's--swung to her face. There she sat, just a little scrap of a girl-woman, youthful and pretty, her cheeks glowing with health, her eyes sparkling near tears, her trim figure clothed attractively in a bright calico, the tiny, fair-skinned, chubby-cheeked Nathan contentedly in her arms studying her face.
"I want to thank you," she said shyly, "for workin' so faithfully for my husband, for makin' his load--an' thus mine--easier, for not demandin' things that we can't provide." She hesitated, then smiled, "But most of all, I want to thank you for the good supply of chips that you didn't fuss 'bout haulin'. I've been thankful over an' over for those chips."
Missie couldn't suppress a giggle. Though the men realized
that she was sincere in her thankfulness, they also saw the humor in it and gladly laughed with her.
Though unaware of it at that moment, Missie had just made some friends for life. Not one of those men sitting round her tiny shanty would have denied her anything that was in their power to provide.
Later, Henry brought in his guitar and they sang together. Cookie just sat and listened. Sandy whistled a few lines now and then. But Clem, to Missie's surprise, seemed to know by heart most of the traditional carols.
It was hard to break up the little gathering. Several times Missie added more chips to her fire. Little Nathan made the rounds from one pair of arms to another. Even the tough-looking Clem took a turn holding the baby.
At last Missie put the coffeepot back on and boiled a fresh pot. She was glad that she had made enough tarts for each of them to have another one with their coffee.
The men lingered over their tarts and coffee but finally took their leave, tramping their way through the snow back to the bunkhouse.
Missie hummed softly as she washed the dishes--there had been no point trying to find room to wash them earlier. Willie put on his hat and coat and left for the barn, Missie assumed, to check the horses.
Missie had finished the dishes and was feeding Nathan when Willie returned bearing a box. Missie looked astonished, and he answered her unasked question.
"I did my Christmas shopping 'fore we left Tettsford." He set his box on the table and began to unpack it.
" 'Fraid my gift don't seem too fittin' like in these surroundin's. I was sorta seem' it in our
house when I bought it, I guess. Anyway, I thought thet I'd show it to ya, an' then we can sorta pack it off again." Willie lifted from the box the most beautiful fruit bowl that Missie had ever seen.
She gasped, "Willie! It's beautiful."
Willie was relieved when he saw that the bowl had brought her pleasure. He set it gently on the table.
"I'll let ya git a better look at it when yer done with Nathan.
Then I'll pack it on back--out of yer way."
"Oh, no," Missie protested. "Just leave it."
She laid the baby on the bed and went to the table to pick up the bowl.
"It's lovely," she said, her fingers caressing it. "Thank you, Willie."
She reached up to kiss him. "An' I don't want you to pack it away--please. It'll be a reminder--an' a promise. I--I need it here. Don't you see?"
Willie held her close. "I see."
After a moment of silence, Willie spoke softly.
"Missie, I wonder--I wonder iffen you'll ever know jest how happy ya made five people today?"
"Those four cowpokes--an'
Missie's eyes gleamed.
"Then make it
Willie--'cause in doin' what I. could, the pleasure all poured right back on me. An' I got the biggest helpin' of happiness myself!"
After the anticipation and preparation for Christmas, the winter days fell back into their previous monotony. At times Missie felt that she could endure no more, confined as she was in her stuffy sod shanty. Her only company for most of her days was baby Nathan. She feared that she might spoil him with all the attention he received. It was a good thing that he fussed very little, for Missie used every little cry or complaint as an excuse to pamper and cuddle him. He responded with toothless smiles and waving fists.
When he slept, Missie tried to find other things to keep herself busy. Her hands had long since run out of materials for crafts and activities to occupy them, and the walls of the room seemed to press ever more closely about her. She no longer made daily treks to the fuel shack; ever since Christmas, a good supply of chips appeared beside her door every day before she crawled out of bed. Missie never discovered which one of the men delivered them.
Baby Nathan gained weight, gurgled and cooed, and tried to
chew everything that his small hands could get to his mouth. Soon it became difficult to find a safe place to leave the wee child.
Though time with him was somewhat limited, Willie also doted on his son. Missie sometimes teased that if it had not been for Nathan, Willie would have been content to live out with his precious cows! When Nathan began to squeal at the sight of his daddy and laugh at his roughhouse play, Willie found it even harder to leave the house and go back to the stock.
Missie was having glimmers of hope that winter was almost over when a sudden, angry-sounding wind swept in from the north. It caught them off guard, and before the men could even saddle up to go look after the cows, the snow came--the swishing, blinding clouds of it seemed set on devouring everything in its path. Willie realized that it was foolhardy to send men out in such a storm. He would just have to leave the animals on their own and hope that they could find some shelter.
The storm moved on after two days. By then the drifts of snow had piled high all around. The shanty's door was almost buried by the whiteness. Willie had to wait for the ranch hands to dig him out.
When they were finally able to leave their quarters, the men quickly saddled up to go out looking for the range cattle in the hills. After combing the hills for three days, the reports were heartbreaking. At least seventy-five head of cattle had been lost in the storm. Missie cried. Willie tried to assure her that they'd make out fine, that temporary setbacks were to be expected; but Missie could see a troubled look in his own eyes. They both turned again to their Isaiah passage for comfort and strength.
In February one of the milk cows calved, and Missie felt like she had been handed an incomparable treasure. Even the loss of the cattle the week before was put from her mind. What marvelous possibilities for sparking up their diet, with milk on hand!
"What I couldn't do now, if I just had some eggs," she said. She promised herself that as soon as possible she'd do something about that.
Spring eventually did come--slowly, almost unnoticeably,
until one day Missie realized that there was a feeling of faint warmth in the air. The drifts of snow began to shrink and gradually dark spots of earth appeared. The spring started to trickle again and the stubby bushes beside it began to dress in a shy green.
Missie ached for the sight of budding trees, of blossoming shrubs, but only empty hills, stretched away from her gaze. To her great joy, a few flowers timidly made their appearance; Missie couldn't resist picking some to grace her table. In the gloom of the little sod house, one had to bend over the tin cup that held the flowers, in order to fully appreciate the tiny scraps of color.
As the snow receded, the men spent much more time out on the range, watching the cattle vigilantly. Spring calves were arriving daily; they would not totter about many days before the "Hanging W," Willie's brand, would show on their flanks.
Missie did not care for the name attached to Willie's ranch, not in favor of "hanging" even a W. But Willie laughed at her squeamishness. All of Willie's stock bore the brand.
The hard range riding of spring roundup had begun. Day after day the men rode and gathered the scattered stock and their calves. They were all driven to the wide box-canyon where they had been protected during the first winter storm. When the roundup was completed, the men counted one hundred ninety- eight head of cattle and one hundred and six calves.
"Even so," Willie maintained, "thet's a few more than we started with."
The wagons were moved out to the canyon to serve as bunkhouses during the spring branding. Cookie slept in the chow wagon, as well as using it for kitchen, supply shack and blacksmith shop.
The men were divided into shifts for the night hours, and Willie and Sandy took the first hours.
It wasn't long until the cattle adjusted to their more confined surroundings. The lowing and milling subsided and they bedded down for the night.
After midnight, Henry and Clem took over the night-watch duties. Sandy and Willie gladly unsaddled their mounts and cozied up to Cookie's open fire. They drank mugs of hot coffee to