(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 4 - the end
Valorie Bender Quesenberry
He strained his eyes to see anything other than whipping snow. Turning around 180 degrees on the spot, he began to walk, his arms out in front of him. Surely, they’d miss him soon and come out and bang a pot or shoot a gun or something.
But in just a few minutes, his hand hit a wall, a wooden wall, a barn wall. Putting both hands on the boards, he slid them along as he walked until he came to the door. His hands were so cold that it took him a few minutes to make the latch work, but finally he got it open and stepped in.
The damp warmth of barn air greeted him. He stood for a moment, glad to have a haven, his eyes getting used to the darkness. Then, over in the corner, he saw the light of a lantern.
Quietly, he approached the stall toward the back. The door was open and he could see Janie down on her knees beside a little kid goat. She was holding its head in her lap and singing to it, so engrossed in her task that she didn’t see him.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head. The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
Her hand was rubbing the goat’s floppy ears as she sang.
He cleared his throat, and she looked up. “Hi.”
“Hello, is this where you sleep at night?”
Janie laughed. “Oh no, I just come out here to sing to Joyful before I go to bed.”
“Is that her name, Joyful?”
The little girl nodded. ‘Isn’t it pretty?”
“Yes. I must say I’ve never heard of a nicer name for a goat.”
“That’s because it’s a Christmas name.” She patted the goat’s head. “I love Christmas.”
He squatted down beside her and stroked the goat’s head. “Why?”
“’Cause it’s the time of year when God showed us His love and sent baby Jesus. Do you know about that?”
“Yes, I’ve heard that story.”
“Oh, but it’s more than a story, Mr. Lewis. You see, God wanted to help us, and the best way He could do it was to send His very own Son to come down here and show us what He meant. And He was born on Christmas, just like Joe David.”
“Who is Joe David?”
“My little brother. You didn’t see him yet. He was sleeping upstairs. He had oleo and now he can’t walk.”
Frank hid a smile. “You say he had polio?
She nodded emphatically. “That’s right. It’s a bad disease that twisted his legs all up.”
Frank wondered at her matter-of-factness. “Does he have a wheelchair?”
“Uh-huh, but he can’t play in the snow with it. And he really wants to build a snowman. But the doctor said he needs an operation to make his legs work better.”
“Is he going to have the operation?”
“He can’t until Mother works some more. She’s saving up for it.”
Janie kept stroking the goat’s head, her touch as gentle as a mother. “Do you have a family, Mr. Lewis?”
“Yes, but I don’t see them very much.”
“How come?” Her big eyes wouldn’t let him off the hook.
“I guess it’s because there have been some sad things that happened in our family and when we’re together, we think about it more.” Frank thought the words sounded lame even to a child.
Her brows wrinkled. “Oh. Well, we had sad things too. My Daddy went away and isn’t coming back ever.”
“I know.” Frank patted her head. “I’m sure you miss him.”
“Yes.” She sighed. “Sometimes it hurts really bad. Love does that, doesn’t it?”
“I think you might be right.” Frank’s eyes felt misty. Was he missing something here? Could Sammy’s death be about more than loss or an unknown grave on foreign soil? Was there a gift in his sacrifice?
Janie looked up at him and held a finger to her lips. “See? Joyful is asleep. Be quiet now.”
She laid the goat’s head down carefully and stood up. Together, they backed out of the stall and carefully closed the door.
“Shall we go back to the house now?” It had been a long day. Frank was feeling the effects of the emotional exertion.
“Okay, but we have to be careful. There’s a rope that you can follow with your hand. Gramps is waiting for me in the kitchen. If I don’t get back soon, he’ll come get me.”
“Well, we’d better not make him worry.”
Frank took the child’s hand in one of his and opened the barn door with the other. Sure enough, tied to the front was a thick rope. He put one hand on it and kept Janie tightly on his side. Together, they walked step by step until they reached the farmhouse.
When Jacquelyn opened her eyes the next morning, her first thought was that she was cold. Then she noticed the storm had stopped outside the window. In the early dawn, the sky was a glowing mix of lavender and pale blue, the snow turned to fairy colors by the coming light.
Dressing quickly, she hurried down the stairs as quietly as possible. Pop Benson was pulling on his boots and Mother Benson was rattling pans on the cookstove, making their Christmas morning pancakes.
“Good morning, honey. Are the children still sleeping?”
“I think so, but probably not for long.”
Gramps stood up and winked at her. “Guess they’ll be surprised.”
“What do you mean, Pop? You know I didn’t have the money to buy them a lot of presents.”
“Maybe not, but your faith must have multiplied somehow.”
He waggled his finger at her. “Come take a look.”
Tiptoeing lest she wake the children, Jacquelyn followed him into the front room where a fir tree stood by the picture window, its branches hung with colored paper rings and red and green lights.
She looked where he was pointing and gasped. Under the tree there were presents, quite a few of them. She walked over and looked at the tags. To Janie, said one. Another was marked for Joe David. And another, and another. She looked up at Pop Benson, her throat starting to ache.
“Had to be.” Said Pop. “When I got up this morning, he was gone, and these things were here. ‘Course, it didn’t take too long to follow his tracks out to the road. Somebody else must have helped him move that car. Just a big bare spot in the curve where it had been.”
Pop reached into the branches of the tree and pulled out an envelope. “This is for you.”
Jacquelyn reached for it, her eyes wide. Opening the seal, she pulled out a single sheet of note paper and started reading.
The tears were falling before she finished, and she sat weakly down on the floor.
“What’s it say?” Pop wanted to know. “Martha, come here.” He called to Mother Benson in the kitchen.
Jacquelyn cleared her throat and read aloud.
I am making an appointment for your little boy with a specialist in the city. The operation he needs will be paid for. It so happens that the Policeman’s Benefit Fund now has a special account set up in my brother’s name, and Joe David will be the first beneficiary. I am honored that Sammy was privileged to serve with a fine man like your husband; I hope I can show my gratitude by helping Joe’s son have the chance to walk. And I’m especially grateful to your family for reminding me that love sometimes bears unexpected gifts, even in loss. I wish you all many happy returns of the season.
Your faithful servant,
Sergeant Frank Lewis”
Janie looked out the window and saw the feather-flakes coming down again. But this time, they were gentle, settling down on the farmyard like soft kisses. Her plate was piled high with ham and sweet potatoes and green beans. And there were even pumpkin pies and fruitcake for dessert. Around the table sat Gramps and Granny and Mother and even Joe David, though it had been hard to pull him from the fire engine that was now sitting beside the Christmas tree.
She glanced at the sofa for another look at Merry Carol, her doll. She was the most elegant doll ever, her golden curls bunched on her shoulders and her pink, porcelain cheeks turned in a pretty smile. And Janie was certain no doll ever had a more Christmasy name.
Gramps had just laid down the serving fork and was preparing to return thanks when there was a knock at the door. Mother looked at Granny who raised her shoulders questioningly. Mother got up quickly to answer it.
Janie heard a deep voice talking to Mother and then Officer Lewis stepped into the kitchen, hat in hand.
“Here I’ve interrupted again.” He said, though Janie thought he didn’t sound very sorry.
“We’re so glad you did, son.” Gramps stood up. “Have a plate with us. Give us a chance to tell you how grateful we are.”
Officer Lewis waved his hand. “I’m the one who’s grateful. Best flat tire I ever had! I actually came back because I had a delivery to make.”
“A delivery?” Granny asked as she brought another plate and silverware to the table.
“Yes, Ma’am. Do you all know a Billie Sue Beadle?”
Mother smiled delightedly. “Yes, I ride to work with her.”
“Well, I found this package addressed to you when I got back to the station this morning.” He handed Mother a large bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied with a bit of twine. Sure enough, a hand printed card read “Jacquelyn Benson.”
When Mother ripped open the string, out fell a soft gray coat. Mother let out a little cry and hugged it to her. “Oh, that crazy, sweet girl. She shouldn’t have.”
Gramps piped up. “Aw, don’t worry none about that Billie Sue. She’s probably trying to bribe you into helping with her wedding finery. I hear old Pete was workin’ up his nerve to pop the question.” He shook his head. “Poor fellow, bet he doesn’t know she’s already got the drop on him with her wedding plans!”
They all laughed a little, and Gramps went on. “Now that’s enough glad-crying, Jackie. I’m about to starve sitting here eyeballing this ham. Let’s eat before the taters get cold, shall we?”
Mother smiled then and hung the coat over the side of the sofa. “Okay.”
And so they all sat down to their Christmas dinner. Bite after bite, they ate and ate and Janie looked around at the faces and thought about the many good days to come. Just then, she felt a tug on her braid and Officer Lewis leaned down to whisper in her ear, “How about we visit Joyful after lunch?”
Janie nodded happily.
And in the hallway, Daddy’s picture smiled at them all while outside the feather flakes kept falling on the patrol car parked in front of the farmhouse.