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Christmas story: by Ol' Lucas Boy
It was mid-December as Lucas and Mark made their way back to the ranch from a bustling little town called "Waters Free". While not as old as North Fork, Waters Free got it's name when westward settlers came upon the location and noticed that greenery was abundant in that small area. It was almost an American oasis if you will. A large subterranean aquifer was discovered by those settlers just 40 feet below ground level so they put up stakes right there and made it their home.. Obviously fed by merging underground streams from the surrounding hills, water was plentiful and so the answer was, "Waters Free", to the question asked by wayward travelers as they stopped on their journeys west seeking relief for their sandy throats and thirsting animals. So, the name just stuck. Luke had been asked by the manager of the freight office in North Fork if he would deliver a small shipment of medical supplies and 2 crates of supplies the general store there in "Waters Free" who had ordered them from back east. The shipping company's driver had made it as far as North Fork before receiving a wire that his wife had taken ill and he was needed back home. The price was right and Lucas was good friends with the freight office manager so he thought, "why not"? "It's been a mild winter so far and the extra money will come in handy come spring planting time.
Lucas eyed the winter sky as he and Mark made their way along the snowy wagon trail homeward bound. The snows were plentiful that season so far but not particularly hindering. It seemed warm spells were following the snows and so far, keeping the snow depths to a minimum. To date Luke had guessed about three and a half to four feet of snow had fallen already. Only about a bit more then a foot or so average had stayed on the ground and less then that on the wagon trail. As a matter of fact, the nicely packed down snow actually filled some of the pockmarks in the weary road and made travel a bit smoother than normal. Naturally, the higher elevations had deeper snow and some of the valleys and passes on the shady side of the mountains were either blocked or nearly so. Lucas made sure to attach the canopy cross members to the buckboard before he and Mark left the ranch. The cross members were made into staves from pliable willow trees. They arched over the buckboard from side to side allowing a canvas to be stretched over them forming a canopy over the freight section of the buckboard. While not allowing much protection from the cold it afforded a dry shelter and a windbreak of sorts and with the end flaps drawn tightly and venting a small heat stove it was quite a comfortable alternative to sleeping on pine boughs with horse blankets.
Luke gave Mark a few turns at handling the team of plow horses pulling the buckboard. After all, what better way to give the boy the feel of guiding a team and wagon on the snow then to be sitting right next to him? Mark did a good job and Luke even let him handle the team over a couple of minor up and down grades along the trail. The wind was picking up, coming in from the north and slapping briskly into the right sides of Lucas and Marks faces. Daylight was fading now and soon it would be time to rest the horses and make camp for the night. Lucas decided it was time to pull the team from the trail and prepare for night. Lucas guided the wagon off the trail and positioned it so that the predominant winds would hit the smaller corner end of the buckboard that was flapped shut rather then have it strike the rig broadside. Lucas instructed Mark to rollout the bed rolls onto the floor in the back of the buckboard and attach the oat buckets to the hungry horses while he started the fire. It would be hot beans, bread and cold jerky again tonight, but to two hungry trail weary travelers, that was a feast. After finishing the supper, as it was, the two headed into the buckboard for nights rest. The little heater was doing a fair job and coupled with the bed rolls and army blankets that Luke brought along the two were soon sleeping.
Mark awoke the next morning to see Paw already outside the buckboard and sipping a cup of coffee near a fresh campfire. Surprised by a fresh 4 inch snowfall overnight Marks eyes blinked twice to adjust to the newly fallen whiteness around him. "Morning son", said Paw as he tossed the last few sips of trail coffee into the fire watching the droplets sizzle and dance their disapproval in the red embers. Grabbing his hat, Mark jumped down from the wagon and began shaking the snow off the blankets over the horses backs as steam exited their snorting nostrils, they too were waking up. At the hoofs of the horses you could see nuzzle marks in the snow as the horses scavenged for a few morsels before their work day began. Preparing to set off Luke commented, "we should make Northfork in two days son". "We should make Dowdstown by about lunchtime, maybe we'll have a good meal at the hotel and then make a few more miles before nightfall". Mark liked the idea of a bought lunch, it appealed to him especially now as he swiped a blade full of peanut butter across the end piece of a loaf of bread. Luke and Mark hopped up onto the wagon and began the days travel. The ride to Dowdstown was uneventful, chilly, but uneventful. The town came into view and already Mark's mouth started to water as he thought about that hotel lunch just up ahead. Luke stopped the wagon in a narrow alley way alongside the hotel and he and Mark entered the hotel. It was actually quite busy as Luke and Mark sat down at table near the entrance to the kitchen. The warmth of the hotel dining room especially near the kitchen with it's full 8 burner woodstove was particularly comforting to a couple of chilled trail-stiffs like Luke and Mark. The hot beef sandwiches with gravy and potatoes filled the two travelers up and as Luke sipped a good cup of coffee, Mark of course had a slice of pie to "help him finish his milk". Luke reached inside his jacket to his shirt pocket for a stogie, then glancing to his left he noticed two ladies just sitting down at the table next to him. Luke tucked the stogie back into his pocket and thought to himself, "well, maybe later". As Mark scraped the last few bits of pie off his plate Lucas commented with a half-laugh, "well that's one plate the dish washer doesn't have to bother with". "Nope, I reckon not", said Mark with a smile. Luke grasped the tip of his hat and tugged it slightly acknowledging the two women seated nearby as he and Mark got up to leave. The two women watched as Lucas and Mark exited the dining room, Luke ducking slightly under the oak stick and ball fretwork gracing the entry way into the dining room.
A quick stop at the general store for a peppermint stick and the two trail men were heading down main street out of town and back on the road. "We'll be home by nightfall tomorrow son" said Lucas, as Mark steadily whittled down that penny peppermint stick. "Once we cross the river we'll make camp Mark, we should be there before nightfall". Luke and Mark talked as the time went by and Lucas told Mark his thoughts on the patch of land due south on their property. Son, I think with the money we made on this trip, and if we clear the stumps on that section of land, we could buy enough seed to plant 5 more acres of land and still put money in the bank. Mark nodded in agreement and then told Paw of his own plans. "You know Paw, that baby milk cow Mr. Swaim gave me last year for plowing his back field is producing good now, and since we already have a milk cow I thought I might just sell her and maybe buy a rifle of my own". "Well son", Lucas replied, "any firearm is a big responsibility but I think you're old enough to understand that responsibility". As the day faded away, true to his estimations, just as the sun was at eye level, the frozen Forked Branch river was within sight. 15 miles beyond that lay Northfork and home! Lucas deftly steered the buckboard towards the sloped pathway that marked the shallowest crossing point on the river. Pulling the reins and halting the horses at the edge of the bank Lucas got out to test the ice. Lucas cautiously headed out onto the ice, tapping a long spike into the ice. Luke determined the ice was still as strong as it was when he and Mark crossed days before, and the wagon was much lighter now too. It was clear that Luke would be the first to cross since, aside from a few small animal tracks, there were no human signs present in the fresh snowfall covering the ice. With Lucas slowly leading the team by the front hitch and Mark keeping a steady firm rein the wagon embarked across the frozen river. As the rig neared the center point of the river, as if on call, a lone howl eminated from off in the distance. Immediately the horses froze still then began to panic, their hooves clacking nervously on the frozen water. As Luke applied downward pressure to the front hitch Mark loosed the reins slightly. As the jittery team calmed Lucas again began to lead them. Suddenly, the right front wheel of the wagon crashed through the ice and sank a full 2 and a half feet down to it's mid-axle point. The undercurrent of the river must have produced a honeycombed spot in the ice and the McCain's had found it! Lucas instructed Mark to carefully climb down from the rig and go back to shore as he attempted to unhitch the team. Lucas managed to unhitch the team one by one and carefully lead them to a tree back on the bank where they had just started to cross from and tied them to it. Lucas went back to the rig, climbed onto the bench seat and retrieved his rifle, the bed rolls and the lantern and then headed back to Mark waiting on the bank. "What are going to do now Paw", asked Mark? Lucas replied, "I saw a fork in the road about a quarter mile back son, we'll backtrack to it and follow that down a ways, it must lead somewhere". If we don't find any shelter, we'll have to bed down out here until morning then try and free the wagon with the horses and some rope". Luke lifted Mark onto the back of one of the team horses and after securing the bed rolls on either side of the other horse they started back towards the fork. Luke knew he surely couldn't leave the horses near the rig, not out of fear of theft, no self respecting thief would be coming out on what surely would be a very cold night, but for fear of hungry wolves. Nearing the Fork in the road Lucas decided it was time to light the lantern he had taken from the stranded buckboard. Lucas led on with the team and Mark trailing at arms length their way vaguely illuminated by the yellowish lantern glow. Not much was said as they made way along, both Luke and Mark knew what they were up against, even the horses seemed a little ill-at-ease as they plodded along without their familiar tree and harnesses. The group was about a half mile down the seemingly
deserted road and Luke started seriously thinking about getting a fire going and bedding down. "Well, just a little further" he thought. As the wayward travelers approached a small rise in the road Luke caught a whiff of smoke. He thought to himself, "no one would be out here camping", "that must be from a fireplace". At the crest of the rise Luke caught sight of yet another smaller fork off of the trail they were on. The smell of the smoke was little stronger now and the faint glow of a lamp appeared in what surely must be an upstairs window. A feeling of relief seemed to come over everyone as they approached the large wood frame two story dwelling. Luke knocked firmly on the double front doors and after a few long seconds a very surprised 50-ish looking man with a thick moustache and even thicker Swedish accent answered the knock. Luke and Mark were invited inside the spartanly appointed building. Lucas explained their plight and the man identified himself as Eulie Nelson, caretaker of what our stranded travelers soon discovered was an orphanage. As Mark glanced around he noticed that the large wooden staircase leading to the upstairs was lined with inquisitive children dressed in nightshirts. Eulie said to Lucas they were welcome to spend the night but they had to sleep down here on the floor or in the out building with the animals. As Luke was seeing to the horses he noticed the cramped barn, already with 3 drawn horses and a scrawny aging cow seemed a little warmer then the dank space in front of the homes stone fireplace with it's fading embers. Luke figured by adding in the body heat of his two horses and he and Mark, the barn would be a little more comfortable, especially with the bed rolls laid over several inches of fluffed up straw. The barn it was, and Luke and Mark were rescued from the oncoming frigid night.
The next morning brought promise of a sunny, yet cold day. Luke woke Mark up early and the two headed over to the main house. Eulie was awake already and had hot coffee already on the stove. Handing Luke a hearty cup he sipped it a bit to test the hotness. "This is tasty coffee" remarked Luke. "I add just a bit of chocolate shavings to it" replied Eulie in his heavy accent. Noticing Mark's ears perk up at the word "chocolate", Eulie asked Luke if Mark may have a taste. Eulie mentioned that the old cow in the barn was slowing down and he had taken to giving the older kids coffee, saving the milk for butter, cooking and the younger kids. "Sure" said Luke, "Warmth and energy is going to be a necessity today when we get back to that wagon". Mark sipped the brew, mentioning, "this tastes a whole lot better then the stuff you make on the trail Paw". Eulie sheepishly offered the McCain's some toast feeling bad he could not offer more. Luke sensing the plight of the orphanage declined saying, "thank you, but no, I ate some jerky I had in my shirt pocket already he hastily offered. Mark accepted a large slice with melted butter and a hint of cinnamon.
The sun was steadily rising now as Lucas, Mark and Eulie made their way back to the McCain's stuck wagon in Eulie's wagon with Luke's two horses trailing, tied to the back. The newly formed ice around the sunken wheel was chipped clear by Mark as Luke and Eulie used a pulley and rope from the barn to hook up a makeshift block & tackle using a tree on shore. With the ice chipped away and the rope running from the rear axle of the wagon through the block and tackle and then on to Eulie's wagon they were ready to try to free the wagon. Eulie took his seat on his wagon and Luke positioned himself in front of his sunken wagon slightly bent over and pressing his gloved hands on a 4 by 4 inch hewn piece of log resting on a stump portion to act as a lever. "EEE-yup", said Eulie, and with a snap of the reins his team strained against the counterweight behind them. As the horses pulled and Luke pushed (his feet looking for traction on the ice) downward to lift the front end of the wagon the stuck wagon began slowly giving in to the pulling of Eulie's team. Eulie shouted out yet another command, this time an indiscernible one, obviously something in Swedish, and the horses gave an even stronger pull and the stuck wagon finally rolled freely out of the water and onto the frozen river. Lucas re-hitched his team and again thanked Eulie for his hospitality and help. Reaching into his pocket Lucas began to pull out some money, Eulie sensed what Luke was doing and stopped Luke before his hand was even out of his pocket. "No, Luke, that's not necessary", said Eulie, "I know you’re the type of man that would have done the same for me". With that the two men shook hands and went in their opposite directions.
As Lucas and Mark trailed along toward home Mark commented, "You know Paw, I feel so sorry for those kids back there, no parents and all". Luke commented, "it's better than them living off the streets son". "You see Mark, orphanages really got their start in our country after the Great War". "So many kids were left without a father, or mother , or both, something needed to be done". You can't replace a parent's individual love for their child with a headmaster, but our great country felt it had to do something and orphanages and adoption are the best answer at this time. "Besides son, those kids back there have Eulie". Mark thought a moment and nodded in agreement, "I guess you're right Paw, but I still feel sorry for them". Further along Mark commented again, "I just thought of something Paw", "remember the first Christmas"? Lucas said, "Well, you may not believe this son but I wasn't there, but I have read about it in our bible" he said with a halfway grin. Mark said, "No Paw, I don't mean your old". I mean we were almost like that last night". "We were in trouble, and I bet we looked just like Mary and Joseph must have, what with you leading me in on that horse and then asking Eulie for a place to spend the night" "Heck!, "We even stayed the night in a stable with the animals for warmth". Luke replied, "well son, I had'nt thought of it but darned if you aren't right". Four hours had passed since they left the river and their ranch was coming into view. It's amazing how a week on the road makes ones home look like a castle to them…"be it ever so humble", goes the phrase.
The following night over their first real home cooked meal since they returned Mark stated. "Paw", he said, "I have an idea". "Yes son?" replied Luke. Mark proceeded to lay out his "idea" to his father and Luke listened with interest. "That's up to you son" replied Lucas at the conclusion, "but I'll be glad to help you". Leading up to Christmas, Luke and Mark decorated around the home as good as two men could, pine boughs graced the mantle with two red candles atop it. Some sprigs of holly surrounded the oil lamp base on the dining table, even the front door had a home made pine wreath on the front to greet any visitors. But the McCain's weren't home on Christmas day. They were knocking on the door of the orphanage again and once again, Eulie answered the door. As he welcomed Lucas and Mark inside the children once again gathered on the stairway. "C'mon down kids", said Eulie in his heavy accent, "we have visitors". As the kids gathered round Lucas, staring up at the big cowboy as if he could touch the ceiling, Mark came back inside with a big box and a bag. Inside the box were dozens of gingerbread cookies for the children, each Childs face lighting up as they received their treat. Then Mark opened the big bag and the children squealed with delight as each child got a big peppermint stick striped with Christmas colors. Eulie looked at Luke as astonished as he was grateful. "You and your son just gave these kids the only Christmas they've ever had Luke" said Eulie, his heavy voice starting to break. Just then, Mark said, "that ain't all Eulie, come with us". With that The McCain's led Eulie outside to his barn, as he opened the door, there stood Mark's milk cow with a big rope painted red and tied like a Christmas bow around her neck. Merry Christmas Eulie, said Mark. The husky Swede was overcome with emotion at this act of kindness shown him and "his" children. "This is truly a good country with good people" said Eulie his voice cracking as he took his hanky and blew his nose. Later in the afternoon, the McCain's were once again heading home.
Back at their own cabin after eating some reheated stew Lucas remarked, "You know son, it is still Christmas". Lucas walked into the bedroom and re-emerged with a package wrapped in brown paper and decorated with Christmas trees hand drawn by "Paw" himself, he handed it to Mark. As Mark opened the package it became obvious that it was indeed a rifle of his own. Wide eyed Mark looked up at Lucas and remarked "Oh Boy"! Trying to temper the boy a little Lucas said, "it's used son, I got it from the gunsmith in town, but it will serve you well and it's good enough to start with". Mark hugged his dad and then pulling a small pouch from his pocket Mark said, "it's only a little tobacco Paw, and I didn't have time to wrap it" he said looking down at the floor. "Son" said Lucas as his big arms drew Mark closer to his chest in a hug, "you've already given me the best present a boy can give his father", "The gift of knowing I'm raising you right, your actions show that to me every day". "You're mother would be proud" said Lucas as he stared at the small red candle glowing next to her photo on the table by the chair.
Merry Christmas to all from Ol' Lucas Boy
around the McCain Ranch