What a wonderful Christmas story!
by Michelle Palmer
“Pa, have you ever shot a bow and arrow?” Mark blurted out early one Saturday morning in December.
Lucas looked up from the sink where he was washing the breakfast dishes. “What?”
“Have you ever shot a bow and arrow?”
Lucas nodded. “I have.”
“Boy,” Mark shook his head from side to side. “I sure bet it’s something! You reckon I could shoot a bow and arrow sometime?”
Pa grinned as he looked up from the sink. “Son, this doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Christmas is coming on Monday does it?”
“Well, you said you were going into town today to Christmas shop, right?” Lucas nodded as he turned and leaned against the counter. He crossed his ankles and folded his arms as he studied his young son. “Well, I’m guessing you haven’t bought me a present yet.”
“Oh?” Lucas looked down at the floor then back up into Mark’s eyes. “Whatever gave you that idea, son?”
“Oh…well…I…” Mark stuttered. There was no way he was going to tell his father he had done some snooping around the ranch. He’d looked in every imaginable hiding place. “I mean…”
“No, I haven’t bought your present yet.” Lucas turned back to the sink. “And I know you’ve been looking at the $20 bow and arrow Miss Milly has on display in the store. Milly told me all about it.”
“Oh. Then there’s no reason to tell you what I want for Christmas.” Mark’s voice sounded reserved.
Lucas lifted his head toward the ceiling. He turned and uncrossed his arms. Slowly, he walked toward Mark. “Listen son, twenty dollars is hard to come by – even at Christmas. If I spent $20 on a gift for you, it would be something a little more…practical.”
“Oh.” Mark raised his eyebrows as he looked into his father’s eyes. “So, I shouldn’t expect a bow and arrow for Christmas?”
“I’m sorry, son.”
Lucas studied his twelve year old son’s face for several moments. He could tell Mark was very disappointed. He had his heart set on getting that for Christmas. “Listen, Mark. Even if I were a rich man, I wouldn’t get that for you. It’s just not something you need.”
Lucas walked to the door and put his coat on. He grabbed his hat and rifle. “I want you to clean the house this morning, son. Tie a rope from the house to the barn. I have a feeling there’s a snow storm coming and I want to be prepared just in case.”
“Alright.” Mark had to try one more time. “Pa?” Lucas turned. “I would really like to have that bow and arrow set…more than anything else.”
Lucas slowly walked back over to his son. “Mark, you’re old enough to learn a few things about Christmas and money. But, I need to beat the storm in, so I don’t have the time to teach them right now. This afternoon, we’ll have a sit down talk, alright?”
Mark nodded then watched as his Pa rode off towards town.
It was about eleven o’clock when a small knock sounded at the front door. Mark was surprised when a little six year old girl stood before him. “Hello.”
“I’m lost!” She cried.
Mark stepped out onto the porch and bent down in front of her. “What’s your name?”
“Mandy,” she answered with a sniff.
“Well Mandy, uh…where do you live?”
Mandy turned and pointed. “That way!”
Mark remembered that a new family had just moved in to a small shack in the woods behind their land. The shack had been vacant for a long time. Mark had felt sorry for whoever had to live like that. “Well how’d ’ya get here?”
The little girl shrugged her shoulders. “Well…” Mark looked up at the sky. “I’ll walk you back home. Come on.”
As Mark thought on what to do, he said, “Come on inside and get warmed up.” He knew it wasn’t too far of a walk. Since he had to go through some steep grades, he didn’t want to risk laming a horse so he decided to walk her.
Mark noticed he coat the little girl wore was thin and couldn’t keep out the cold. Mark hurried to his bedroom and pulled out a coat from an old trunk. His mother had made it for him before she died. When Mark traveled back to the family house in Enid, Oklahoma two Christmas’s ago, he had found it hanging in the closet. “Here. Put this on.”
“Oh no, I-“ But Mark began putting her arms through the sleeves. He grabbed an old scarf and some mittens that had been with the jacket.
“Okay, it’s really cold so you need to stay bundled up.”
They left and started toward the woods. Mark had looked up at the sky, but he didn’t look west. If he had, he would have seen the dark, ugly clouds headed straight for them.
Mark grabbed her hand as they stepped into the woods. The wind had picked up some since they left home, but Mark wasn’t too concerned. “I’m tired,” Mandy cried. “My feet hurt!”
Mark stopped and turned. “Oh. You’ve walked a long way. Would you like a piggy back ride?” She nodded. Mark kneeled down so she could climb on.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry. My name’s Mark. Mark McCain. I live with my Pa.”
“I live with mama. I have two brothers and a sister at home. My Pa died…last Christmas.” The girl sniffed.
“I’m sorry.” Mark closed his eyes for a second, sad at the news.
He couldn’t carry her too far. They came to a gully they had to climb down. Mark went down, carefully picking out where to step, and held on to her hand. “Mark?”
“I have to go!”
“Go? Go where?”
Mark watched as Mandy grew bashful. “You know…I hafta go!”
“Oh! Well, I-“ Suddenly, a loud whooshing wind came rushing through the woods. It became noisy. Mark looked up at the sky. “Oh no!”
“What, Mark? What’s wrong?” Mandy asked.
“It’s gonna be really noisy for awhile, Mandy. I need you to hold tight to my hand!” Mark yelled over the wind. “Oh no,” he said under his breath.
They walked across the gully and began the steep climb upwards. As they walked through the woods, the trees protected them from some of the fierceness of the wind. They were about to leave the shelter of the trees when Mark felt more of the fury of the storm. They were still quite a ways from the shack where Mandy lived, when Mark remembered a small cave just on the other side of the woods.
The storm clouds were so dark that it was almost pitch black, in the middle of the afternoon. He knew they’d freeze to death in no time, if he didn’t get to shelter. He prayed…Prayed that they could get to the cave and build a fire to stay warm, in time.
Lucas hurried Razor into the barn. As he opened the door, he realized the rope hadn’t been hung as he had asked. Lucas shook his head. “That boy!” After bedding down the stock, he grabbed a rope and tied one end securely to the barn door and picked up an armload of wood as he hurried to the house. Once on the porch, he tied the rope to one of the posts on the porch and then went inside.
As Lucas set the wood in the wood box, he sensed the house was empty. “Mark?” Lucas ran into the bedroom. He ran outside. “Mark?” He called several times as he ran across the yard, but found no sign of his son. He hurried back into the house. That’s when he saw the quickly scribbled letter:
“Pa, Little girl, Mandy, was lost. I walked her home to the shack on the other side of the woods. I will be back soon. Mark.”
Lucas punched the table with his fist. He remembered telling Mark not to leave the ranch – that a storm was coming in. He couldn’t believe his son could be so irresponsible as to not follow his orders.
Lucas hurried out into the yard and looked up at the sky. The storm was quickly approaching, and not only did he have to find his boy, but he also had to find a little girl with his son, and prayed that both were found safe and sound.
Lucas hurried back into the house and grabbed a lantern. It was the middle of the afternoon, but he knew he’d need it just as soon as the storm blew in. Then he took off in the direction Mark and Mandy should have traveled. As Lucas followed their tracks, he came to where the wind had removed any trace of their exact trek.
Mark prayed for God’s guidance and safety before leaving the shelter of the trees. “No!” the little girl screamed. “No!”
“We have to go!” Mark said a bit too harshly. “We have to find shelter!”
“No! It’ll get us!”
Mark turned and looked in the direction she was pointing. “It’s just a snow storm, but we have to find shelter!”
The girl struggled and pleaded with Mark. Mark finally dragged her behind him as they walked out into the darkness. He listened to his instincts. That’s all he had. He knew they were safer in the shelter of the trees, but even that wouldn’t save them from freezing to death the longer they were out in the storm.
Mandy was crying beside him. She kept screaming that it would get them. He had no idea what she was talking about or why. All he knew is they had to-
Mark’s foot hit something different from dirt. He reached down and felt it and could tell it was a rocky ledge. After striking the rock, he realized his feet were frozen, and he was sure Mandy’s had to be also. “It’s not far now, Mandy!” Mark declared as he smiled. “We just have to find the opening!”
They walked along the stone outcropping for several minutes. Mandy continued screaming that it would get them. Finally, Mark stumbled into the opening. “Come on! We’ll be safe in here!” Mark lifted her and pushed her into the entrance. Then he hoisted himself up. “Let’s walk back aways.”
“Is there a bear in here, Mark?” Mandy asked.
“I hope not,” Mark mumbled under his breath. They went as far as they could. Mark felt around for any wood that might be in the cave. After finding some and making a pile, he pulled out a match and tried to light it. Just as the flames took, the wind blew it out.
Mark positioned himself so the wind was to his back and he could block out a lot of the wind. He worked at lighting the fire again. This time the flame on the match took and the flame slowly took to the pile of wood . He sighed in relief as a fire soon lit the cave. “Mark, where are we?”
“In a cave on the other side of the woods,” Mark said. He shook his head. “I still can’t believe you walked so far from home!”
Mandy was shaking. Her face was white. She looked frightened. “Don’t be scared. I’ll get you home just as soon as this silly ol’ storm let’s up.” Mark grabbed Mandy’s feet and started taking her shoes off. He began rubbing her feet to bring warmth back into her frozen toes.
“It’ll get us! I won’t see Mama no more!”
“Sure you will! What do you mean it’ll get us?”
Mark watched her eyes fill up with tears. Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped off into the floor of the cave. She looked straight into Mark’s eyes. “It killed my Pa. It killed my Pa!”
The wind had picked up by the time Lucas made it into the woods. “Mark!” Lucas called. “Mark, where are you!”
Lucas shook his head. The wind was too strong. Anything he yelled was lost in the wind. The icy cold flakes of snow fell in white sheets across his face. In his hurry, Lucas had forgotten a scarf to secure his hat down. Lucas held on to his hat as he walked deeper into the woods. “Mark, where are you?”
He knew Mark couldn’t hear, but he had to keep himself occupied as he made his way through the dark woods. Lucas lit the lantern. It took several tries, but he managed to get it lit. Little good, it did - casting eerie shadows just in front of him. “Mark McCain!”
Lucas traveled up and down the gully and over boulders. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the blizzard would be too fierce to continue his search. Lucas broke out of the woods and shone his light ahead. The shack shouldn’t be far now.
In fact, it was only ten minutes later when a frozen Lucas saw lights flickering inside a tiny shack. He hurried to the shack praying to God Mark and the little girl were there safe and sound.
Mark rubbed her feet even harder as he sat her on his lap and told her to warm her hands over the fire. Worry began to plague Mark as the fire was already starting to die down. Mark knew he’d have to go look for more wood…wet wood…”What killed your Pa, Mandy?” Mark asked gently.
“The storm! It killed him!” Mandy cried.
“The-“ Mark stopped. “You mean he got lost in a blizzard?”
Mandy nodded. “Pa was comin’ home from working on the railroad. It was Christmas Day. Mama cries a lot now.”
“I’m sorry, Mandy.” Mark tried to imagine what Christmas was like for this little girl and her family last year. It must have been ruff. He lifted Mandy and sat her down on the other side of the fire. “I have to go find more wood. You stay here.” Mark found a piece of wood that would make a good torch. He knew it would go out within seconds, but perhaps there’d be enough time to look around before it happened.
“No!” Mandy cried. “The storm will get you, Mark!” Mandy started rubbing her eyes.
Mark bent down next to the frightened little girl. “No, it won’t, Mandy! But if I don’t get more wood, we’ll freeze to death! I’ll be back.”
Mark stepped outside. He began to look around for wood. To no surprise, his torch went out and he was in almost total darkness. The fire inside the cave provided just enough light to help him find his way back when he was finished. Mark worked for several minutes gathering up piles of wet wood and carrying it into the cave to dry. He soon rejoined Mandy.
He warmed his hands over the fire. “You see, I’m alright. I came back.”
“I want mama,” Mandy cried.
“Yeah, I know.” Mark put an arm around her shoulders. “I want my Pa too. What’s your brothers’ names?” Mark wanted to take her mind off her troubles.
“Wilbur and Jacob.”
“Are they older or younger then you?” Mark asked then.
“Oh.” Suddenly, Mandy doubled over in pain. “What’s wrong?”
“I get tummy aches sometimes. Mama said they’re hunger pains.”
“Hunger pains?” Mark wrinkled up his face as he tried to figure that out. “Why would you get those?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
Mandy hung her head. “Ain’t supposed to tell.” Mandy looked up at Mark. “Can you…keep a secret?”
Mark remembered making that promise in the past and getting in trouble for it. “I can’t promise.”
“Well…” Mandy sighed as she shivered. “I don’t get ta eat very much anymore.”
“Have you eaten today?” Mark asked then. His heart began beating fast as he waited for the answer.
“Mama said we had to wait till tonight. There ain’t enough but for only one more meal.”
Mark cringed as he heard those words. Only this morning, he was upset that he couldn’t get a $20 bow and arrow. Now he felt ashamed. He knew Mandy was being protected from a cold, hard truth. She probably didn’t know the answers to his unspoken questions.
Mark reached inside his pocket and pulled out the last of his candy stash. “You like candy?” Mandy nodded. “Here.”
He suddenly looked into her eyes. It was then that Mark realized just how hungry she was.
A little boy opened the door. Lucas opened his mouth to speak, but the little boy ran away, frightened. “Mama, mama! Santa’s at the door!” The little boy declared.
A woman in worn shoes and a patched up dress hurried to the door. Her face was worn with age. Her hair pulled back into a tight bun. Lucas could tell the years hadn’t been kind to her. “Oh my!” The lady put a hand to her chest. She wiped her red, swollen eyes and stepped back, allowing the big, tall man covered in snow to step inside.
Lucas stepped inside the dimly lit shack that had more cracks in the wall then not, and a dirt floor. “Is your daughter here?” Lucas asked.
“Mandy?” The woman burst into tears again. “She’s been missing since this morning! I don’t know what became of her! I’ve been beside me with worry – was out looking for her earlier but then the storm hit. I had to come back…” The woman began shaking as she covered her face with her hands.
Lucas led her over to an old chair and sat her down. Then he pushed the door closed behind him as the full furry of the storm was upon them. The woman invited Lucas to stand in front of the fire.
The woman apologized for her tears. Lucas gave a worried smile. He turned from the fire and slowly walked over to her. “Don’t be sorry. I feel like crying myself.”
“Why?” The woman looked at Lucas in shock. “And why would you be out looking for my daughter on a day like today?”
Lucas studied her eyes. He recognized the look in them. She was cold, half-starved, and under a lot of pressure. “My boy wrote me a note that Mandy arrived at our door and he was going to walk her home. I prayed that they’d both be here by the time I arrived. Any idea why she was out there?
The mother shook her head. “I don’t know. I asked the children. They know something, but they aren’t telling me.”
Lucas turned. For the first time, he saw three small children sitting on the bed. They didn’t look very old. They too looked half-starved, sick, and very cold. They shivered under the thin blanket they were under. “You children get over by the fire,” Lucas suggested. “I can move your bed closer so you can stay warmer.” Lucas did just that. He watched the woman as she lovingly tucked her children into the bed and pulled bricks from the fireplace. She sat them inside the covers.
When they were all tucked in, Lucas bent down next to them. “Now, who wants to tell me why Mandy ran away?” None of the children said a word. “You may think you’re doing the right thing in keeping a secret, but you aren’t. You may be hurting your sister more.”
One of the boys looked at his mother. “Ma?”
“Wilbur, if you know anything, you have to tell!”
“But Ma!” Wilbur sat up in bed. Lucas took him by the shoulders and looked him squarely in the eye. Wilbur broke the stare and looked down. “Okay, I’ll tell you, Ma. But you ain’t gonna like it.”
“I don’t expect I will.” She folded her arms and waited.
“Mandy went to…” Wilbur lowered his head. “She went to find some food.” Wilbur began coughing then.
Lucas’s heart sank at his announcement. He turned in time to see Mandy hurry to the window. “Alright, you did right in telling us. The storm’s too bad tonight. As soon as the storm let up I’ll go find your sister.” Lucas laid a hand on each little cheek. “You three don’t worry. She’s with my boy, and I’m sure they found shelter…somewhere.” Lucas could tell they were hungry and sickly. “Close your eyes and go to sleep.”
He slowly stood and walked up to the mother. “Mrs…?”
She turned. “Williams. Jessie Williams.”
“Your husband?” Lucas asked, thinking he already knew the answer.
“Dead.” She didn’t turn from the window. She spoke softly so only Lucas could hear her words. “He died while coming home for Christmas.” She turned. Tears were lying heavily on her face. “Last Christmas.”
Lucas hung his head. He shivered as the storm blew icy cold wind right through him. He looked around at the one-room shack. This was no shelter for a woman and her four children. “How bad is it?” Lucas asked sternly.
“How bad is what?” Mrs. Williams asked as she turned back toward the window.
“I think you know what I’m talking about. How bad is it?” She didn’t respond. He gently grabbed her shoulders and turned her around. “Come on, I have to know!”
She lowered her head in humbleness and squeezed her eyes shut. Finally, she covered her face with her hand and spoke softly – almost too softly for Lucas to hear. “I feed them one meal a day. I had a bit of cornmeal and mix it with water. We’ve been living on that bag of cornmeal now for quite awhile.” She folded her arms across herself as if to get warm. “I fed the last of it tonight.”
Lucas turned and looked at the three children snuggled up together in the bed. “How long’s it been like this?”
She shrugged. “We got a little money from the railroad after my husband died. It only goes so far. The bank took our house when we lived in High Butte. We walked here from there and some folks in town told us about this shack.”
Lucas nodded. “Yes, I heard that a family moved here, but I had no idea…” He could kick himself for not asking more questions. He grew angry at the folks in town who didn’t help a window and her four small children. As soon as this storm was over and he had his son back in his arms, he would do something about this.
He lifted her face and stared into her eyes. She couldn’t look at him. He knew why – she was a prideful woman. It would be hard to break through that pride to show her the truth – she needed his help. “Go on to bed, ma’am. As soon as the storm let’s up I’ll go looking for the kids.”
The fire was dying and Mark knew the storm was too fierce to go looking for anymore firewood. Night had fallen. He had no idea what time it was, but he knew it had to be night by now. “Mark, I’m getting c-cold…” Mandy cried.
Mark looked around desperately to find something…anything…to keep the fire going a little longer. There were two lonely pieces of wood left. He wanted to save them, but when he noticed Mandy’s shivers, he picked them up and placed them on the fire. He took off his coat and wrapped it around her. Then he wrapped his arms around her to give her even more warmth. “When will it end, Mark?”
“Soon,” Mark answered. “Very soon.”
It wasn’t long before Mark heard the steady rhythm of Mandy’s breathing. He knew she was asleep, warm and cozy in his arms. The last of the fire was quickly dying down. Mark closed his eyes, and soon he too was asleep as it grew colder and colder in the cave.
Lucas had no idea how late in the night it was when the storm finally ended. He drifted off to sleep as he sat waiting for it’s end in the old chair. Suddenly, he startled awake. He saw the cold, poor, malnourished sleeping family. Suddenly, he realized all was quiet. He didn’t know what it was like outside this wind-damaged shack. All he knew was that there were two children lost somewhere out there because of the storm. He left the woman sleeping, a Bible clutched to her chest, as he left the shelter of the shack.
His boots sank into foot-deep snow. Lucas stood in the deep snow as he looked to the heaven’s in prayer. He had no idea where to start looking. He held the lantern up as he scanned across the prairie. “God, help me,” he breathed out. It was then that a star suddenly appeared through a break in the clouds. He couldn’t help thinking to himself, ‘How symbolic. If it could only be that simple.’
As he started walking, he remembered that Mark had once told him about a cave he had found, when he was out exploring. As Lucas thought about that, he realized the star was in the same direction as the cave should be. “Please God, let them have found shelter,” Lucas prayed. “Please let them both be alright!”
Lucas walked along the near side of the gully. His walk was hard and treacherous. Snow drifts much deeper than a foot made his work even harder. He fell to his knees several times when the snow drifts got higher. Each time he fell, he stood up. His legs were frozen from where he fell. His feet were becoming numb. It was only a matter of time before he wouldn’t be able to go on. Each time he got up, he looked up at the sky and rejoiced that the star was still there.
Lucas fell again and landed on his hands and knees. He suddenly felt too weak to go on. This time, he cried out, “Mark!” as tears filled his eyes and crept down his face. “God, help me!” he screamed. “Help me!” He sat back on his heels and raised his face to the sky. Was it just his tears or did that star look brighter and suddenly begin twinkling?
Lucas continued on and soon found himself facing a rock ledge. As he looked around, he thought he saw distance good place for a cave. He looked up at the sky. The star was twinkling brighter now. It was positioned right over that place. With one hand on the wall to steady himself, Lucas walked. As he got closer, he saw a snow covered opening to a cave. This time, he looked straight up into the sky. The star was right above him.
He paused at the entrance. “God, please prepare me for what’s inside.” Then he steeled himself for what he might find inside. Looking to the heavens for guidance, Lucas saw the clouds had covered over the star he had followed. The star was no longer there.
He looked toward the snow-covered entrance. “Oh, Dear God!” he cried. “God, please-“ Lucas started digging the snow away from the entrance.
“Mark!” Lucas cried out. He stopped to listen, but heard no reply. His digging became more fierce. As he dug out more of the opening, he called out again. “Mark!”
But there was still no response. “God, no! Please God, no!” Lucas cried. He saw something in the opening of the cave. It was one of Mark’s gloves. They were here. “Mark, please!” Lucas yelled again. “Please answer me, son!”
Lucas picked up the fading lantern and shined it into the opening. It was then that he saw two figures curled up, together, lying in the back of the cave, on the far side of what was now smoldering ashes.
“Mark! Mark!” Lucas’s voice didn’t even cause the children to stir. He crawled over to them, knowing each move brought him closer to the bodies of his son and the little girl. Lucas forced himself to think on them as someone else’s child. Anyone’s but his. He finally sank to his knees at Mark’s back. Tears fell more heavily from his cheeks now as he lifted a hand. The children weren’t waking up. He put a hand to Mark’s cheek. It was cold. “Oh, God! Oh God!” Lucas screamed. He lifted his son up into his arms and felt the girls cheeks. Hers were still warm.
Lucas took only small comfort in knowing Mark had saved her from death. Tears fell even harder, as he closed his eyes and begged to Margaret to forgive him for not protecting the life on her son. He rocked Mark back and forth in his arms. “I’m so sorry! I’m so-“
But his voice died when he heard a slight murmuring. He opened his eyes and looked down at his son’s face. His eyes were fluttering, attempting to open. “God, help me…God help me…” His voice was almost too quiet to understand.
“Mark?” Lucas put a hand to his son’s cheek and felt it again. It was still cold, but he was alive. “Mark!” This time, tears of joy came from his eyes. “Oh Mark! Oh Son!”
“Pa?” Mark again attempted to open his eyes. “Pa, the light…the light…”
“What light?” Lucas asked?
Mark lifted a weak hand up towards the ceiling of the cave. “Up there…It kept me warm!”
Lucas looked up but saw nothing. He squeezed Mark to him. “Oh, thank you Jesus!” Lucas whispered at first. But as the realization hit him, his voice rose in thanksgiving. “Thank you Lord for protecting my son!”
Tears spilled onto his sleeping child. He gently laid him down and took off his own coat. Then he covered both Mark and the still sleeping child with it before he went out to find some wood to build a fire.
The small fire he was able to build from the wet, fallen limbs brought little warmth to the cave.
He walked to the opening and pulled more snow in to close it off. He returned to the fire and pulled both Mark and the girl into his arms as he waited for morning to come
Total exhaustion – both physical and mental – put Lucas to sleep. It was only a couple hours later before Lucas woke to discover it was morning. The fire was just smoldering faint embers now, but he didn’t care. Now they could leave. He crawled to the opening of the cave and pushed the snow out, allowing the bright morning to filter in.
It was snowing again. But there was no wind – just a soft, gentle snow was falling. Lucas looked up towards the heavens and saw that there was no sign to it stopping. He hurried back inside. “Kids, wake up!”
Mandy opened her eyes. She started crying at the big bear of a man that stood in front of her. Lucas, suddenly realizing how he must look to this little girl, gave her a gentle smile. “I’m Mark’s Pa. My name’s Mr. McCain.”
Mark opened his eyes. “Pa?” He coughed. “Pa, is that you?”
Lucas bent down next to his son. “Yes, son. It’s me.” He rubbed a thumb across his cheek. “I thought I lost you, son.”
Mark tried to sit up, but his head spun. Lucas pushed him back down onto the floor of the cave. “No, no. You got really cold last night. You mustn’t move. I’m going to go make a travois. You stay right here. Mandy, you stay right here with Mark. You hear?”
“Yes sir,” Mandy answered as she sat down by Mark and took his hand. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Thanks.” He started to stand. Mark reached out a weak hand and grabbed Lucas’s arm. “What is it, son?”
“Pa, I…I had to help her get home for…for…Christ…Christmas. I’m sorry I got us stuck in a blizzard.”
Lucas smiled. “No need to apologize. You did right in trying to get her home, son.”
“Pa, the light kept us warm last night. The light showed me that we would be okay.”
“What light, son?” Lucas asked.
Mark again pointed up with a weak finger. Lucas nodded. “Alright, son. Just…lay there. I’ll be back for you.”
Lucas hurried outside. He saw a tree that had fallen during the storm. Having no tools, he quickly tried to gather up broken limbs to make the travois. When he had it secure, he came back inside. He picked up his coat and laid it on top of the travois to make a soft travel for his son. Then he came back for Mark. Gently, he lifted Mark into his strong arms and carried him out. He gently laid him on the travois. “You’ll be cold for only a little longer, son.”
Lucas picked up the little girl. “Can you take care of him for me, sweety? I’m gonna put you back here with him. You let me know if he gets into any trouble.” The little girl nodded, knowing her job was very important.
The going was very slow. There were times when Lucas wondered if he would ever get to the shack. He had to stop several times to dig the travois out of the deep snow. Mark was frozen, he knew. He fretted what the additional freezing would do to his child. Lucas himself was shivering since he had no coat on at the moment. “We’re almost there, kids. Can you hold on?” Mandy nodded.
When Lucas was just a few feet from the front door, he lifted Mandy off the travois and told her to go on inside. Then he gently picked up his son and started inside. “Mandy! Oh, Mandy!” Lucas heard the cries from within. Mrs. Williams was on her knees holding her daughter as tears of relief flowed freely down her face. “My baby!” She kissed her daughter several times. “Oh, my beautiful baby!”
She looked up then and saw Lucas holding his son in his arms. She jumped up and ran over to them. “Is he…?”
“He’ll be okay. He needs warmed.” Lucas hurried Mark over to the bed by the fire. He went outside and got the last of the wood and built up the fire. “He got really cold last night. I got there just in time. He was nearly frozen to death.”
Mrs. Williams began taking Mark’s wet clothes off. “We’ll cover him with every available blanket. She took off his wet socks and began rubbing his feet gently. “They’re frozen! We’ve got to get him warm before he catches his death of cold.”
“M…m…Mandy…” Mark stuttered as his teeth continued to chatter. “M…Mandy…”
Lucas kneeled down beside the bed. He ran a hand through his son’s hair. “She’s okay, thanks to you, son. Your body kept her warm and cozy.”
He began rubbing Mark’s chest trying to get heat to return to it. He had managed to keep Mark moderately warm in the cave, but the trek to the shack had paid it’s toll on his young son. “He needs broth…hot tea…warm milk…” Mrs. Williams turned to Lucas. She had tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
Lucas stood and motioned for her to come over by the door. He took the gloves from his back pockets and began putting them on. “I’m trekking back to the ranch and getting a wagon. You and the children are coming back to the ranch.”
“Oh no-“ Mrs. Williams started.
Lucas laid a hand on her shoulder. “There’s no discussion. Think on your children. They are starving and sick. You can hardly stand.” He allowed his stern gaze to penetrate her own. “That’s the way it’s going to be.” The shack squeaked. Lucas looked up at the ceiling. “This building isn’t staying up too much longer. You’re not safe.”
She again opened her mouth to speak, but Lucas placed a finger over her lips. “Take care of my boy. I’ll bring something back to feed him and the children. Then we’ll start for the ranch.”
Then Lucas disappeared out the door before she could say anything.
Tears filled the woman’s eyes. She hated the fact that she needed help. She went to look out the window. He was a wonderful man – he reminded her so much of her late husband. “Who is he, mama?” the youngest little girl, Betsy, asked.”
Jessie smiled through her tears as she hugged herself. “A miracle, baby. He’s our Christmas miracle!”
“Pa? Pa?” Mark cried out some time later. He was shivering something terrible. Jessie hurried back over to the boy and began rubbing him all over his body to warm him some more. “Pa, help me! My feet are burning!”
“That’s a good sign!” Jessie declared. “You’re going to be okay.”
Mark opened his eyes and stared at the woman. “Who…who are you?” he asked suddenly.
“I’m Mandy’s mother. And I am very grateful to you.”
Mark looked around the room. “Pa? Pa, where is he?” He sat up, grabbing his head as he groaned. “Where’s my Pa?”
Jessie tried to push Mark down into bed, but he refused. “He’ll be back with some food to warm your insides.”
The door suddenly opened. Lucas stepped inside with a bundle of blankets. He ran and spread them out by the fire. Then he turned. “Mark, you shouldn’t be up!”
“I’m alright.” Mark coughed. “I’m alright.” His throat ached and he felt weak, but he had many things to do.
“Here,” Lucas handed Jessie a bag. “There’s broth in there. I brought some milk for the children and some bread and butter.”
Lucas unbuttoned his coat. “Children, sit down at the table. You’ll get your insides warm then we’ll leave.”
Lucas and Mark sat on the bed and watched the family eat. The children stuffed the bread in their mouths as if they would never get another meal. Lucas looked at Mark. Lucas fed Mark another bite of broth as he groaned. “Just a little more, son.”
He then hurried over to the table. “Children, slow down before you make yourselves sick!” Lucas bent down in between two of the children. He put a gentle hand on each shoulder and looked in the eyes of every child and the mother as he spoke. “You will never go hungry again. I’m going to see to that.”
“Mr. McCain-“ Jessie started.
“Mrs. Williams, there’s a verse in the Bible. Jesus tells the church to care for the widows and orphans. I intend to make sure that request is carried out.” She only smiled as a blush crept across her face.
Finally, the kids seemed stronger. “We’ll have a real feast tonight!” Lucas promised as he began helping Jessie put the well-worn shoes with holes in them on her children. He led them out into the wagon and told them to scrunch up together. Then he took the warmed blankets and snuggled them securely around the children. He went back inside for Mark. Lifting him into his strong arms, he gently carried him to the wagon and tucked him in cozy and warm. “Okay, it’s going to be a rough ride so hold on!”
Lucas watched the expressions as the children walked into his house. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It had been so long since they’ve been inside a house. Lucas carried Mark into the bedroom and tucked him into bed. He felt his forehead and frowned. “You’re sick, aren’t you son?” he asked.
Mark shook his head. Lucas raised his eyebrows. “Son?”
Mark lowered his head and nodded. “But I’ll be okay, Pa!”
Lucas stood to leave. “Pa, can I…talk to you?”
Lucas sat back onto the side of the bed with a nod. He looked into his son’s eyes, waiting for him to speak. “Pa, that family is dirt poor. I mean…they have no food..no decent clothes…and…”
“I know,” Lucas answered.
Mark hung his head. “I’m so ashamed, Pa.”
“Why?” Lucas asked.
“I was so upset with you that I couldn’t have that bow and arrow set. Well…now I know what I want for Christmas.” Lucas looked at his son, waiting to hear what his request was. “I want the family to have a Christmas, Pa. I want them to sit around the tree on Christmas morning and open presents. I want them to have food, clothes, a warm place to stay…I don’t want anything but to see them happy.”
Lucas smiled. “I’m riding into town to get the doc for you. While I’m there, I’m getting a group together to meet tomorrow. We’re gonna give them the best Christmas ever.”
There was a knock at the door. Jessie walked in with a tray. “I want to get some warm tea down him and…I’m sorry, Mr. McCain, but I went through your medicine box and found some tonic here.”
“I think you’re in good hands, son.” Lucas stood up. “I’m riding for the doc. I'll be gone for awhile. Can you handle things here?”
Jessie nodded. “What did you plan on fixing for supper? I can get it started.”
“Oh, I have a side of beef hanging. I’ll bring it in. There’s vegetables a plenty in the cellar.” Lucas studied her. “You okay?”
She turned away. “Well, I best take care of him.”
Lucas stood and watched as she mothered his sick son and nursed him. “I’ve been watching you with the boy. You’d make a fine nurse.”
She smiled. “I…was one at one time.” She turned and looked at Lucas. “In the town we used to live in there was no doctor. I delivered many babies, got many children over the measles, dug plenty of bullets out of folks, and even held some hands as a hopeless person laid dying.”
“And you mothered four children?” Lucas shook his head. “You’re an amazing woman.” There was no response. “Well, I’ll be getting on my way.”
The trek was hard. Lucas wondered if getting a doctor was even necessary now that he knew Mrs. Williams used to be a nurse. He had several things to do if he was going to keep his promise to Mark. He took the horses directly to the livery stable so they could get warm, then set his plans in motion. He talked to the Marshal, the doctor, Milly, and asked the members of the town council to gather up as many of the citizens of the town for a special meeting to be held Tuesday – the day after Christmas. “With a little more notice, we could have had this ready by Christmas, but I reckon a New Year’s surprise will work as well.”
He apologized to Milly for bothering her with the store on Sunday, but he had an emergency. Milly knew exactly what she needed to do and she and Lucas got started on the Christmas surprise.
When Lucas returned home, it was almost dark outside. He hurriedly bedded down the stock then went inside. A pleasant aroma met him as he opened the door and he smiled. Pot roast with potatoes, carrots, green beans, and some special bread for dessert greeted him. Lucas quickly sat down the box of groceries. “We were hoping you were coming along soon,” Jessie declared.
Four children greeted him warmly and smiled up at him. Lucas laughed as their faces lit up. “We’re getting a big meal tonight, huh, Mr. McCain?”
Lucas lifted Three year old Mary and Mandy both into his arms and they laid their heads on his shoulders. “How’s Mark?” he asked as he attempted to look at their mother.
“He’s sleeping again, I think. He still has a cough. I’ll give him a steam treatment after supper.”
Lucas sat the two girls down at the table. Mary suddenly grasped Lucas’s neck. She didn’t want to let go. Lucas laughed. “Now, Mary! You let go!” Jessie started to order.
“No, no…It’s okay.” Lucas sat down and placed the tiniest girl on his lap. “May we all join hands?”
The children grasped hands around the table. Lucas bowed his head and prayed. “Dear Lord, on this Christmas Eve, we have so much to be thankful. I thank you that our children’s lives were spared during the storm. I pray for Mark who’s fighting something as a result of his adventure. I pray that he will get better very soon. And now Lord, I want to thank you for putting this wonderful family into our lives. May you bless them and keep them safe. Bless this food and the hands that prepared it. Amen.”
The children sat and stared at the food. Lucas’s heart went out to them when he realized they were unsure on what to do. They had starved for so long that they still thought this was too good to be true. “If you pass your plates, I’ll give you the meat. Then your mother can put the vegetables on it.” They filled each plate. Lucas watched as they began eating, slowly at first, then faster and faster.
He sat down his fork and cleared his throat. “Let me tell you kids something. I know you’ve starved in the past, but that’s going to stop. Nobody’s taking this food away from you. Eat it slowly and enjoy it.”
After they were full, Jessie gave each child a slice of pie. They heard Mark call from the bedroom. Lucas sat the little girl he was holding on her mother’s lap and hurried into his son. He sat down on the side of the bed and placed a hand on his cheek. “How are you feeling?”
Mark’s voice was hoarse as he tried to answer. Lucas heard the congestion as he breathed. “Jessie!” Lucas called out then as he grasped Mark’s shoulders and pulled him to his chest. “Jessie!”
Jessie came inside. She ordered Lucas to stand. As Mark lay back down, “She put an ear to his chest and listened as Mark breathed. Then she lifted her head and turned to Lucas. “It’s settling in his chest.” She rolled up her sleeves. “Don’t worry Mr. Mc-Lucas. He’ll be alright.”
She hurried to the kitchen and went through the medical box as well as the spices and herbs he had in the kitchen. Before long, Lucas was looking at a paste-like substance that smelled. “It’ll help open his chest,” she explained as she threw a towel over her shoulder. Lucas started to follow her in. “You stay here with the children. I’ll tend to Mark.”
The children were full of apple pie and seemed to be getting tired. Lucas took each child to the wash stand and washed their faces and hands. Then he reached into one of the boxes and took out a night shirt for each child. “Here. You kids change while I get your beds ready.”
Lucas soon had the children cozied down by the fire. “Mr. McCain?” Mandy said softly as Lucas tucked the covers around her. “Do you believe in Santa Clause?”
Lucas grinned. “Well of course I do!” Then he raised an eyebrow and cocked his head to one side. “Don’t you?”
Eight year old Wilbur and seven year old Jacob turned and looked at each other. “Of course we do!” They exclaimed.
“It’s just that…Does Santa Clause come to only good people?” Mandy asked then.
“We’re all bad sometimes, Mandy. Santa expects that. I know my boy’s had his share of trouble this year, yet Santa Clause still comes to him.”
Mandy started crying. She turned and buried her head in the blanket. Lucas reached out and touched her arm gently. “What is it, sweetheart?”
“We must a been real bad last year cause…cause…” Mandy sniffed again. “He didn’t come.”
“Oh.” Lucas sat down beside the children and drew his knees up to his chest as he looked at each set of eyes. “Last year WAS a hard year for Christmas! I heard, though, that Santa Clause knows he missed you last year and he intends to make it up to you this year.”
“But Mama said Santa can’t come this year either,” Jacob pointed out. “She said Santa can’t make it.”
“Oh, well, it just so happens that he can…as long as four little children are sound asleep.”
“Will you…tell us a Christmas story?” Mandy asked then.
Lucas smiled. “I sure will. I have the perfect one. Lucas cleared his throat. “Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house-“
“Mr. McCain?” Wilbur spoke then. “How will Santa know where to find us? We’re not at our house this year.”
“Oh, well Santa just knows. He knows everything!” Lucas smiled. That satisfied them. “Now,” Lucas placed a finger to his lips. “Call me Lucas.”
“Uncle Lucas?” Jacob cried.
Lucas smiled. “Sure. Uncle Lucas is fine.”
“Jacob, Shhhh! Uncle Lucas is telling us a story!” Mandy ordered.
“Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring.” Lucas looked at each little face as he said, “Not even a mouse.”
“A mouse?” Mandy gasped.
“A mouse!” Lucas answered as he reached out and touched her nose. “The stockings were hung from the chimney with care in-“
“Uncle Lucas?” Jacob suddenly sat up. “How is Santa Clause gonna come in here?”
“Well…like I said, the chimney,” Lucas answered.
Mary was studying the fireplace intently. “But he burn!”
“Oh no, no, no!” Lucas assured them. “You see, Santa Clause…He has a special way that keeps him from burning. Yeah, you see, he just zips down so fast, it misses him!”
“Wow!” Mandy gasped.
“Yeah, wow!” Jacob declared.
“Now, No…more…talking!” Lucas said sternly. He cleared his throat and continued with his story. By the time he was finished, there were four sleeping children and a tired mother who insisted on cleaning up the kitchen before she would go to sleep in the bedroom where she would closely watch Mark.
Mark woke up in the middle of the night with a heavy chest. He knew Mrs. Williams was sleeping in the bed across the room to keep a close eye on him and ordered him not to get up, but he didn’t want to bother her. So as quietly as he could, he crept out into the living room. The children were sleeping on the floor near the fire. Mark paused in the doorway and smiled at the satisfied faces. His Pa had made sure they ate until they were filled and then surprised them with apple pie which was demolished. Mark wished he could’ve been at the table, but his father had sternly wagged a finger at him and ordered him to stay in that bed.
Mark looked over toward the cot on the other side of the room. It was empty. Suddenly, the door slowly and quietly opened. Mark watched a tall figure walk inside with an armload of presents. One by one, he placed them under the Christmas Tree. He left only to come back with another armload.
Mark smiled from the doorway.
Suddenly, two more figures appeared with armloads of gifts. Mark turned and looked at the sleeping children. He knew it would be a very merry Christmas for them after all. He turned back only to see the tallest figure looking right at him. He gasped, knowing he’d been caught. He motioned that he wanted a drink of water. His Pa motioned for him to do it in a hurry. While he was over by the sink, his Pa whispered in his ear, “Go back to bed, son and stay warm. You sound like you’re getting worse. Mrs. Williams will need to give you another steam treatment when she wakes up.”
His father didn’t leave until he saw the bedroom door clos
Lucas lay silently in bed waiting anxiously for the sun to begin it rise. He saw the stars twinkling last night and knew the day would be filled with joy and melting snow. He’d have to make sure those kids didn’t get an inkling to play in the mud. He could hear Mark coughing in the other room and began fretting. He sat up on the side of the bed. Just then, the bedroom door opened and Jessie walked out. “I’ll heat some water. I’m fearing he’s fighting pneumonia.”
“Pnemonia?” Lucas gasped. “That’s dangerous.”
“Yes.” Jessie hurried to the kitchen and lit the stove. She began filling pots with water to boil on the stove. “I’ve cared for plenty of pneumonia cases – didn’t lose too many.”
The two concerned adults sat down at the table and whispered quietly as they waited for the water to boil. “I want to thank you for doing this,” Lucas said as he laid a gentle hand on hers. “My son’s my life. He’s all I have.”
“Yes. I can’t imagine being without my children. They are what keeps me going.” She looked down at the table and back up. “Listen…I’ve always been a self-sufficient woman. Before my husband and I married, I worked in a store as a tailor and a dress maker. I did wonderful work and miss doing it. Then after we married, I supported us by nursing for the town. I can’t say that I was a good replacement for a doctor, but when it’s all you have…” She looked up at Lucas and smiled. “I…also know what you’re doing for me and the children.” She nodded over towards the tree. “I saw the wagonload of gifts when it came in. I also know that you being a small rancher can’t afford to help so much.”
“It’s not much of a sacrifice,” Lucas assured her. “In truth ma’am, I spoke with several of the town folks in town yesterday. They all pitched in to help. There will be more later in the week for your family.”
“Oh, but it’s not necessary!” Jessie declared.
“Non-sense!” Lucas stopped her. “It is necessary. You are a widow with four small children. I’m ashamed the town turned you away when you first came through.”
Jessie lowered her head. “I’m prideful, Mr. McCain, but even the prideful have their weak moments. I must admit I was quite disappointed in our reception here.”
“I…won’t ask who sent you to the shack. I don’t think I want to know.”
“Good.” Jessie smiled. Her smile was beautiful. Lucas knew that she was once a lovely woman. “Because I won’t tell you. You seem like the type that would rush right out and do a number on that person.”
“I would,” Lucas nodded. “I want to. But the truth is…I’d have to start with myself. When I heard a family had moved into that shack, I should have been a neighbor and gone out there to meet you. But…we were busy preparing for winter and…I guess my own desires got in the way of sound judgment.”
Jessie stood and walked over to the stove. She and Lucas carried the steaming water into the bedroom and prepared to help a little boy breathe better.
They covered Mark’s head with a towel and then worked for thirty minutes supporting Mark over the steaming pot as he coughed and sweated. He begged them for stop, but Lucas assured him it was for his own good. Mark coughed harder, which Jessie said was good. He had to get the infection out. After the steam died, Jessie took a special mix she had made earlier and rubbed it on Mark’s chest, after they laid him back in bed.
“It stinks!” Mark groaned. “Pa, do I hafta have this on?”
“Yes!” Lucas answered sternly. “If it gets you better.”
Lucas stayed with the boy until he was asleep. Then he went out to the front room. He could see the night coming to an end as the first small rays of light peaked over the earth. “How bad is he?”
Jessie was unrolling her sleeves and buttoning them as she spoke. “He’s not too bad. As long as we keep on top of this he’ll be okay. The worst part will be his belly aching about the treatment.”
Lucas chuckled. “Yeah, well he never was a good patient!”
“Not many of us are, I don’t guess.” Suddenly, they heard a child cry and Jessie ran to care for her own children. Lucas went out to tend to the morning chores.
Jessie found the old clothes her children had worn last night and told them to put them on. Then she went to fix Christmas breakfast.
“Hey, Santa Clause came!” Mandy shouted. “Uncle Lucas was right, Ma! He said Santa would find us and he did.”
Jessie turned from the stove to see her children all gathered around the Christmas tree looking at the presents. “Just what makes you think those are for you?” she asked.
“Well, this one says “Mandy” on it!” Jacob declared as he held it up in the air.
Mandy jumped up. “Hey, give it to me!”
Jessie rolled her eyes as the children started fighting over the gift. She was about to scold them when Lucas came in with an armload of firewood. He quickly dumped the wood into the bin and hurried over. “Alright, all four of you children sit down at the table.” Lucas held out his hand for the gift and sat it under the tree.
“I’m sorry,” Jessie apologized.
“Don’t be.” Lucas patted Mandy’s head. “If I had been through what they have been, I would be excited too.”
The door to the bedroom opened and Mark stepped out. He coughed a few times. “I’m hungry!” Mark declared.
Lucas hurried over to his son. “Hey, you get back to bed!”
“Actually-“ Jessie hurried over to Mark and felt his forehead. “I’d like him to sit up for just a while. He can sit in his chair by the fire. It helps in cases of pneumonia if they sit up for awhile – gives their lungs a chance to exercise.”
Lucas sighed. “Alright.” Then Lucas picked up his Bible. “Everyone gather around for the Christmas story.” He opened his Bible. “Does anyone know what Christmas is really about?”
“Santa Clause!” Mary exclaimed.
“Nope,” Lucas answered with a smile.
“Presents, tree, and stars?” Mandy asked.
“Nope!” Lucas declared again.
“Jesus,” Wilbur answered. “He was born in a stable as a gift for all mankind.”
“That’s right.” Lucas looked down at his open Bible and began reading the true Christmas Story with deep emotions:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth into Judea unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David)
to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child
And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she would be delivered
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all peoples.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying.
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (Luke 2:1-20)
Lucas closed the Bible softly. Complete silence had fallen over the whole house. Lucas saw tears shining in the children’s eyes. Mark was curled up in the chair, with a big smile on his face. He always loved hearing the story. Suddenly, Mandy got up and walked over to Lucas. She crawled up into his lap as she cried and laid her head against his chest for a moment. Then she turned and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Uncle Lucas?” Lucas looked down at her. “Thank you for giving us Christmas back!” Then she hugged him tightly as she cried softly.
Lucas wrapped his arms around the little girl and looked towards the crying mother. Jessie smiled through her tears “My…husband…used to read that passage to us every Christmas morning. It was always a very special time for us. He read it with such emotion…just like you.”
“Uncle Lucas, will you read that to us every Christmas?” the eldest brother asked through his tears.
Lucas put down the Bible and lifted Mandy into his arms. Then he sat down on the floor beside the children. “You kids, come here.”
They all scooted over by him. As Mandy sat on his lap, he picked up little Mary and sat her on the other side of Mandy, then put an arm around each boy’s shoulders. “I can’t promise you that I’ll be able to read Christmas. When my wife died, my son and I grieved for her a long time. I didn’t even want Christmas because it was such a special time for her. It hurt me. But sometimes it takes a child to help you…Well…to help you see how much Christmas is needed. “Lucas turned and looked at Mark. “My son gave me Christmas back.”
Mark smiled as tears filled his eyes.
Lucas turned back to the children. “Last year, we started building up new memories. We do Christmas in our own way now – not the way his mother did it. You have to allow your father to rest and remember what he did. Maybe Wilbur here can began reading the passage each Christmas morning.” He smiled at the older boy. “Maybe you can help your mother make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve. But whatever you do, you must make it special…for you. My son and I always have a moment of silence on Christmas night after all the excitement has calmed and the night is around us. We think silently about his Ma and what Christmas meant to her. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, you must learn to live without your father – to allow your hearts to heal.”
Lucas looked into each child’s eyes. There was no longer a dry eye in the place. Lucas smiled as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “Now, who’s hungry for your mother’s biscuits and gravy?”
The children jumped up. Each child hugged Lucas as they stood and thanked him for giving them Christmas back. The children all noisily hurried to the table as Jessie began filling their plates. Lucas turned and saw his own son crying. He scooted over to the feet of his son. “Son?”
“I’m just so…happy, Pa,” Mark declared as he began coughing again.
Lucas stood up and hugged Mark. Then he put an arm under his son’s legs and lifted him. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
“Oh Pa, not yet!” Mark groaned.
“If you are good and stay in bed for breakfast, maybe you can come out for presents,” Jessie said with a smile.
Lucas carried Mark into the bedroom and tucked him into bed. “I’ll bring in your food.”
“Pa?” Lucas turned around. “I feel better now. She’s amazing…isn’t she?”
Lucas smiled. “She is.” Lucas sat down on the side of the bed and put a hand to his son’s cheek.
Lucas hurried out and put Mark’s biscuits and gravy on the tray. Then he started back towards the bedroom. Coughing sounded. Lucas turned to look at Jessie. She smiled and motioned for him to go on in. “He’ll be okay, Lucas. I promise.”
After breakfast, the children looked toward the Christmas tree. Lucas and Jessie looked at each other. Jessie rolled her eyes. “Oh, I know you want to as much as they do!” she declared.
“Alright, kids! Let’s gather around the tree!” Lucas hurried into the bedroom and checked on Mark. Mark’s head was warm, and against his better judgment, he allowed Mark to participate in the gifts. Mark smiled as he sat snugly in his father’s big chair to watch the children.
Gift after gift was opened. The gifts were practical. Each child received new shoes, socks, and underthings. The boys received hats, shirts, and pants. The girls received dresses and bonnets.
Present after present was opened and the children cried out at the night shirts, blankets, coats, and mittens they received along with everything else. The girls giggled at their new store-bought dolls, and the boys laughed at the slingshots.
Lucas laughed as he watched. There were still presents under the tree. He looked at Jessie and drew a finger to himself, motioning for her to come over. She smiled and came over to the tree. “Now, before you begin opening your presents, I want you to know that the gifts you and your children received were donated by many townfolks. It was a group effort.”
Lucas handed Jessie a large package. She opened it. As the paper fell away, she threw her hands to her face as she stared at what laid inside. “It’s a…it’s a real store-bought dress!” she declared. She stood and lifted the beautiful dress out. It was yellow with purple flowers all over it. A sash was included to go around her middle and tie behind her in a bow. “It’s beautiful! Just beautiful!”
Lucas smiled. “That’s for Sundays.”
“Oh, I’ll wear it every day!” she declared.
“Well now, you won’t have to do that.” Lucas handed her an envelope. She looked at him curiously as she fingered her name written on the front. “What is this?”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out!”
Jessie removed a pin from her hair and tore the sealed envelope open. She read the words out loud. “Mrs. Williams, I have been looking for a tailor and dress maker for some time now. Lucas told me you used to do this for a living, and I would love very much to hire you part time for the job. The payment will be all the material and sewing supplies you would need to make clothing for your children. Please let me know after Christmas and we will make arrangements. Sincerely, Milly Scott.”
Jessie’s hands were shaking with excitement. Her eyes shined with tears. “I…I…” she swallowed. “I…don’t know what to say!”
Lucas smiled. “I saw the light in your eyes earlier when you told me about your previous job. When I was in town yesterday, I talked to Milly…er…Miss Scott. She jumped at the chance. She can’t pay you much, but she’ll be happy to barter with you. Once you have all the things you need for clothing, she’ll barter other things…food, shoes, school supplies…”
Jessie looked up at Lucas. “School…” She looked toward her children. “Oh, how I would so love for them to attend!”
Lucas smiled. “Well, why not? We have a school here. I’ll help you get them enrolled and such.”
“Thank you.” Lucas loved her smile. He could already see how beautiful she used to be. He knew with a lot of love, she’d be beautiful again. Her heart was already beautiful!
Lucas turned back to the tree and handed her several other presents. She opened each as more articles of clothing, shoes, and hair accessories were unwrapped. “You are wonderful!”
Lucas removed one last present from under the tree. He looked toward his son and brought it over to him. Mark hesitated. He didn’t feel right in taking it. “It’s yours, son. From me.”
“But Pa, compared to what they had, I don’t deserve this. I mean, I’ve plenty.” Mark said as he stared down at the gift.
“Mark, everyone deserves something. The gift may not be as great as the gift that you’ve given this family, but I do feel that you deserve this gift.
Mark opened it and allowed the paper to fall away. He stared at what was inside…
A brand new, heavy winter coat, with a sheepskin lining, and gloves and a scarf. “Warmth.” Mark thought to himself as he ran his hand over the jacket and smiled.
“I’m…sorry I didn’t get you anything, Pa.” Mark said then.
Lucas ran a hand through his son’s hair. “Oh, but you did!” Lucas declared. “You gave me the greatest gift of all. You showed me that you have compassion to help your fellow man, without an adult telling you that you should help… Mark, yesterday when I stepped into the cave and felt how cold you were, I feared you were dead. I asked your Ma to forgive me for not being there for you. Then when you moaned…my heart lifted because I knew you were alive.” Lucas smiled. “God gave me that gift. Though in looking back, maybe I didn’t deserve that gift, but I think the real gift was for you. He gave you the gift of life. He put a star in the sky for me to follow. He led me to you. When I was at the opening of the cave, I looked up and it was gone. I was afraid it meant that…well, that I was too slow or had stumbled too many times. For a moment, I didn’t understand the real reason the star wasn’t there anymore. It was only to guide me to where I needed to be.”
“Mark, it’s like the light we saw!” Mandy declared.
Lucas turned and stared at Mandy. Mark had mentioned the light a couple times. “What….light?” he asked as he turned back to Mark.
“The light at the top of the cave, Pa. It was there. It was like a….like a star – a big star, only it was on the inside. We looked up and saw it. We were cold and shaking, but I suddenly felt so safe…almost like someone was putting his arms around me. I can’t describe it.”
Lucas and Jessie looked at each other. “A star?” Jessie asked.
Lucas smiled. Then he bowed his head and thanked God for his wonderful gift his son had received.
Lucas left the bedroom dressed for church. Since they had canceled the Christmas Eve service the night before, they were holding it tonight. Lucas would be speaking and everyone would be there. Jessie checked the water on the stove before she turned to look at Lucas. “Oh!” She threw a hand to her chest and smile. “My…”
Lucas smiled. “Never seen a man dressed up for church before?” he asked.
“Uncle Lucas, can’t I go with you?” Wilbur asked.
Normally, Lucas would have jumped at the opportunity of taking the children to church, but tonight he had a speech to make and he didn’t want these children to hear it. He laid a hand on Wilbur’s cheek and smiled. “You stay here and help your Ma.”
More coughing came from the bedroom. Lucas turned and raised an eyebrow. Seeing his concern, Jessie stated, “The children are going to do the chores around the house that Mark would normally do. Then when it’s dark, they’ll go to bed. I’ll tend to Mark then. He’ll be okay.”
“Will you come back in time to tell us another bedtime story, Uncle Lucas?” Jacob asked.
Lucas laughed. “I won’t guarantee that. You do the chores I gave each of you.” Lucas took his hat and rifle. “And mind your ma or they’ll be more chores for you tomorrow.” He winked at Jessie. Then he left.
The church was packed. Lucas was excited to see such a large crowd gathered. Many of the men had to stand outside the door and listen while the women and children sat in the seats. The preacher stood and made a short speech, reminding everyone that if it wasn’t for Christ, there would be no Christmas and reminding everyone what the true meaning of that day was. “Lucas McCain came to me earlier and asked to deliver a short sermon.” Lucas cringed at that. It wasn’t a sermon he wanted to deliver! “He told me the story behind his speech, and I think it’s perfect for this day. Lucas?”
Lucas stepped forward. He smiled at the crowd. He looked around at several faces that lived in the town and said nothing for several moments. Then when he finally spoke, it was with emotion and sternness. “Two months ago, a widow and her four children walked…not rode…into this town looking for a fresh start. This woman lost her husband last Christmas. Not only that…” Lucas looked around at the crowd. “…But this woman, she lost her home, her money, and almost every possession the family cherished. They walked nearly a hundred miles on foot. Her oldest child was only eight. And her youngest? Three.”
Lucas watched as a few townfolks suddenly became uncomfortable. He didn’t have to ask who had encountered this family that day. “The Bible tells us clearly that we are to care for those less fortunate than us. It says that we are to care for the widows and orphans. These children…they are so young and don’t understand – or deserve – what’s happened to them. They were grasping for hope. The widow’s children were starving from hunger and had no shelter…no clothing…They probably smelled from having no way to bathe themselves. Their hair looked matted. Their feet were dirty. Their clothes were torn.”
Lucas looked around as more folks suddenly became uncomfortable. “Someone here was so gracious as to give them sympathy by sending them five mile from town to a shack in the woods. This shack had been empty for several years and was falling down. With the approaching winter, this shack would not keep the family safe and warm. “ Lucas couldn’t keep the anger and disappointment from his voice. “Yes somebody…” He banged his fist on the pulpit as he raised his voice. “SOMEBODY wanted to get rid of them because they didn’t “look” good or “smell” good. They didn’t want to help them. So they shoved them aside as if they were nothing.”
Several more faces hung in shame. Lucas stepped off the platform and walked around the church. “I can’t help but wonder how many people were here that day when this family walked into town exhausted…hungry…and very, very sad? Who offered them something to eat? Who offered them water? Did anyone offer them some soap to take a bath? “ Lucas walked down the asle. “Did you?” he pointed to Nils. “You?” He pointed to Eddie. “You?” He pointed to Andrews, the owner of a set of houses in North Fork.
“So am I to understand…” Lucas asked in a booming voice. “That this hopeless family begging for help found none in our fine town of North Fork that day? That Mrs. Williams and her children were shoved aside? That someone in here-“ Lucas turned and looked over the crowd. “Someone in here so graciously gave them a bag of cornmeal to carry home? Am I correct?”
Lucas looked around the crowd. No one looked at him. No one spoke. Even Milly and Micah were silent with their heads hung low. “Not…even…me!” Lucas’s voice broke as he said those last three words. He stepped back up onto the platform. “You see…I’m not just yelling at you.” Lucas jabbed a finger into his chest. “I’m also yelling at myself. Because the next day, I rode into town and was told that a dirty family had walked into town and inquired about a place to stay and were sent to the shack up near my place. “ Lucas could feel his eyes fill up with tears. “And I…Lucas McCain…didn’t do one single thing.”
In anger, Lucas again punched the pulpit. “Shame on us! Shame on us!”
The room was deathly quiet for a long time after that as everyone wept silently. There wasn’t a dry eye in the whole place. Milly was the first to stand. “Lucas…I…” She stopped and turned to look at the crowd. “I’m so ashamed. I’m the one who gave her the cornmeal. I don’t know why…why I didn’t do more.” Milly sat down.
Micah walked into the room. “I saw them walk in and went into my office. I didn’t want to…” He left his words unsaid as a tear fell down his cheek.
Lucas looked around at the others. “If you wish to admit you took part in this, please stand with me.” Lucas watched as several people – men and women…and even some children…stood up. “Thank you.”
Lucas lowered his head to regain his composure. “No school for the children…No food…No clothing…No…” Lucas pressed his lips together. “Three days ago, a little girl showed up on my doorstep while I was here in this fine town. This little girl…” Lucas lifted his head. “Was only six years old.” Lucas started pacing the front of the room as he spoke. “She was crying…scared…lonely…and hungry. Before I had left, I told my son he needed to learn a thing or two about Christmas and about money. But I should have been scolding myself as well.” Lucas shook his head and sighed. “Anyways, my son proceeded to take her home.”
Lucas went to stand by the window and looked out. “A blizzard came while they were in the woods. These two children took shelter in a cave and almost froze to death. The wood was too wet to build a large enough fire to really warm them. But, MY son covered this little girl with his coat and body to keep her warm and that saved her life. But he almost lost his.” Lucas turned and looked at the crowd. “A twelve year old child…It took a twelve year old child, MY twelve year old child to show me something… the real meaning of Christmas. Our lives aren’t worth anything unless we’re willing to lay it down for those less fortunate then us. I’m so very, very proud of my boy. He almost laid down his life for this little half-starved girl. He could have died. And if he had…I know in my heart that in time, his death would have made me proud. Because he did the right thing.”
“When I got home and found Mark’s note, I naturally went looking for the children. You know what I found?” Lucas stood in front of the crowd and paused his speech for a moment as he made eye contact with several of the people who had turned the family away that day. His voice raised in anger. “A young woman who looked twice her age and was crying and starving and…and three small children shivering in a bed with a thin blanket on it. You know what the mother told me? She fed those children one meal a day: a little bit of cornmeal mixed in water and baked in an oven. They had been living on this for nearly two months. They only ate one meal a day – in the evening.”
Lucas allowed another tear to slide from his eye as he again spoke in anger toward himself and others. “While we were waking up hungry, going into the kitchen and satisfying that hunger, these four small children were waking up hungry and staying that way…all day…They ate only enough to stay alive. They didn’t even have milk. Mrs. Williams told me that the meal she had fed her three children that night was their last.”
Sniffles could be heard all around the room. Men were wiping their eyes. Even the children looked ashamed and embarrassed. “Merry Christmas to us…Ho…ho…ho…”
Lucas stopped then. He slowly sat down on the floor of the platform and waited for someone to speak. Milly stood. “I have offered Mrs. Williams a job. Lucas said she used to make clothing. I have also donated several items from my store.”
Dr. Burrage stood. “I will give the children free healthcare for as long as they need it. Lucas, you bring those children into my office tomorrow! I want all five of them to have a thorough examination!” Dr. Burrage started to sit down. “Lucas also told me that she’s a fine nurse – did all the doctoring in the town she lived in. I’m going to offer her another job – to be my nurse as needed.”
Andrews stood up. “She’ll be living in one of my vacant houses just down the street! It’s fully furnished and has a barn in the back for horses, cows, chickens…It needs some fixing up. “ Andrews looked around. Several men stood up and declared they’d help.
Lucas stood too. “Mark and I’ll be there to help. I’ll bring her boys as well.”
“I have a team of horses to donate,” Nils announced. “And a wagon.”
“I have a plow. I’ll help plow and plant a garden in the spring. If she needs, I’ll even show her how to tend to it.” Someone announced.
“The children will come to school! You make sure they come, Lucas!” Miss. Adams declared.
“I’ll tend to the little one while she’s working!”
“They’ll have all the supplies they’ll ever need!”
“We’ll all do our part!”
“Yeah! We’ll all do our part!”
“They’ll stay at the hotel and eat in the dining room for free until they can move into their house.”
Everyone’s voice suddenly became excited. Lucas’s eyes filled with tears. “We do have ourselves a fine town,” Micah stated. Only Micah heard him as he volunteered to put her house on his nightly rounds. He’d make sure the family stayed safe. “And a town full of fine people!”
As Lucas left the church, he felt good about all that had happened. Yes, the town had been shamed, and rightly so, but now, the true meaning of Christmas was coming through in their hearts. Lucas, remembered the story of the Christ Child’s birth, in a manger. A star led the Wisemen East, to Bethlehem. These folks just needed a star of their own to show them just how wise they could be.
Lucas was just about to put his foot in the stirrup when he felt a hand on his arm.
“Lucas,” Doc Burrage said. “You said Mark almost died. How is the boy? Can I follow you home? Guess I should check on ALL the children tonight and not wait for you to bring them to town in the morning. Can you wait for me to get my bag and saddle a horse?”
When Lucas got home that night, the first thing his did was to introduce Jessie to Doc Burrage, then pointed the way to where Mark lay. Lucas fretted some, knowing that Jessie was doing all she could to help his son, but still…
After about fifteen minutes, the door opened. Doc and Jessie stepped into the front room with big smiles on their faces.
“Lucas, seems you found yourself a wonderful nurse for Mark. We discussed Mark’s condition, from when you got him to that shack, until just now. She’s doing right by everything. Though I would like to give Mark some medication. This will help speed his recovery along a little faster. Don’t like seeing a child sick over Christmas.”
Later than night, after Jessie and her children had fallen asleep in the front room, Lucas told Mark all about the meeting in town. Mark was looking better, Lucas thought to himself as he watched his son smile as he sat up. “That’s great Pa! Seems, it wasn’t just the family that got a Christmas Miracle. It was the whole town. We all got a Christmas Miracle!
“It all started with you, Mark. And here I thought I needed to do some lecturing to you about Christmas, but it was me that needed the lesson. You, my boy…” Lucas laid a proud hand on his son. “You were willing to lay down your life for a stranger.”
“That star may have been meant for me, Pa, but-“
“No, son, I think God was shining that star on our town. Our town had forgot the true meaning of being Christians, and He helped us find our way back. I can’t think of a better gift in the whole world!”
Father and son hugged. “Merry Christmas, Pa!” Mark said.