It was lucky that the old mule, taken as a throw-in part of a deal, lasted long enough to haul in all the firewood from the side of the mountain and from the small, dark valley, before he fell dead in his tracks and was buried right where he fell. Time had caught up with the old mule, as it did with many things. And there was little chance that there’d be any presents for the children, two boys who really kept the spirits at a keen pitch. The snow had drifted in some places as high as 8-10 feet, and the path to the barn was treacherous when any wind was blowing. Gerard Fiddler knew he’d have to walk with a shovel to be sure he’d make it out and back, the snow drifts moving, falling, shutting off what was almost a tunnel at some points. He hoped he didn’t have to try it again before the storm stopped.
At the stove his wife Muriel prepared another meal of venison and bread, the stove hot and keeping a sense of warmth about them, her and him and the two boys that were still tight under a mixed cover of blankets, old flour bags, winter coats, a few furs he’d traded for. They could stay there for the day if they wanted to, Christmas on the doorstep, one day away.
She had one wish.
Cameron Clougherty, Gerard’s friend, had been here in late September, setting up the wood supply against one side of the cabin, covering much of it with a canvas from the old wagon buried by snow behind the barn. Good old Clougherty, who had pulled Gerard wounded from the field at Gettysburg, making sure the doc fixed him, and who had journeyed out here on his own dream and heard Gerard’s name in town and looked him up. Clougherty would keep an eye on him and the family while he was in the area. Clougherty was always on the way to someplace; as he’d say, “Over the rise, and down the skies.” Gerard was convinced "music" began inside Cameron Clougherty.
The days on the wood stacking and covering had been an exhaustive effort and Clougherty had made Gerard do his regular chores while “this hired help does the wood pile." He went at it with a ferocious energy, pausing only for water and a lunch of prairie chicken and beans and bread.
“Muriel,” he’d said a few times, “you handle the skittle and the knife better than any woman I ever met, I swear and dare.” She’d blushed each time, another man in the house for a short spell, a different outlook on things, her hoping that Gerard would make a good stand against the coming winter. The last one had been difficult. She had high hopes for the next one.
Now, in its ferocity, it was here, and she was as thankful as Gerard was about the wood piled against the side of the cabin, enough for the worst winter. She had wondered, at first, as Clougherty took down a section of the side wall and put it back up, but knocked it in place from the inside, like another door.
“Why do that, Clougherty, put those boards in backwards?”
She was all quizzical until Clougherty said, “You can get to the wood right from here if you have to, if the winter is fierce you don’t even have to go outside. That’s why I’ll cover the pile up with the canvas off the old wagon.”
“The cold will come in as bad as ever,” she had said, shivers running on her arms, Gerard nodding at the same time but saying nothing.
“I saw it done in a miner’s place in Montana. It’s a good trade-off for a day’s worth of firewood, wouldn’t you say, in a way?” He smiled that broad grin of his, his eyes lit up, asking for an agreeable answer. "This miner in Montana also had another trick in his bag; he hung all the old unused horse blankets from the barn and placed them on the wall where he takes down a board or to get to the wood pile, and replaces boards and blankets after getting a new stock of wood for the stove. It does him pretty good, so I'll do that here if horse blankets don't bother you in the witchen kitchen." He let go a half-laugh at the idea.
Clougherty, thought Muriel, was always thinking of people, doing his best for friends, and she decided he was a real good friend to her husband, to her and the young ones. She knew she'd think of that when winter sat down on them for a long spell, when the cold, bitterly raw days allowed her to think of the warm past, spring bound to come in its due time..
Now she knew, as the wind was kicking up again, a new storm in the offing, that Gerard wouldn’t have to venture outside for wood or anything besides barn duty at least not too soon. They had flour and beans in the house and a bucket of oats and there was a cache of meat frozen in the box by a window. It was as simple as the access to the woodpile and offered a good trade-off, as Clougherty had affirmed. He had great ideas and she trusted him to high heavens.
She only worried about Christmas and something she could make for the boys, but she’d been so busy with the early storms beating on them and worries about Gerard and his state of mind. More than once, looking at the boys sleeping under a pile of whatever, Gerard had said, “What did I come out here for? Why’d I drag you, Muriel? You’re the best woman I ever knew.”
She worried about that part of Gerard, worried that it might break loose the small chink in his resolve. He was her man and she’d stick with him through it all had done so on several occasions and was apparently at it again, the wind moaning again. But she gave thanks that the roof was covered with snow, holding some of the heat in place.
“It’s part of winter protection,” Clougherty once explained, “like bears look for when they go to sleep for winter. Once I saw a bear go into a cave up there in Montana and pile up snow from the inside across the entrance to the cave, so nothing could get in there in the winter and disturb his sleep. That’s the most natural protection from snow itself, using it against itself. The Eskimos way up in Canada make their little houses out of it, and crawl in deep and go to sleep.”
For the few short weeks Clougherty was there, helping them out, he told stories about everything he had seen. The boys were in awe of him and the stories, coming to them from a man they believed had been every place and seen everything there was to see. He’d been on the great river and two of the great lakes up north of them, and in the war with their father and had seen the oceans on both ends of the country and told it all in his short time there, even as he worked like a beaver gnawing down a new home out of the forest and “taking the prize right under your eyes.”
“Isn’t there a woman in your life?” she dared to ask another time. Gerard was upset at that, but said, “So far, for me, it’s been one woman, and that’s Mother Nature at her best and at her worst and I figure I ain’t been denied and she never lied.”
Muriel looked up at that, the questionable look on her face, and he hurriedly replied, “Not that she. Not to me.” And the chuckle touched them both.
Muriel loved how he’d rhyme things when finishing up a story. It pleased her mightily, and she soon realized, in two or three days at the beginning, that he knew it too. He was a most handsome man, with blond hair that sat like a ball of cotton tight and curly on his head, blue eyes that could not tell a lie to anybody on the face of the Earth, muscles that showed on him from wrists up to hidden bulges, and music in his voice every time he spoke. Muriel knew he must have been swayable with some women despite what he said.
But the days of Cameron Clougherty were long over, winter was atop them with its week-long fury, and no stopping in view. The aroma of baking bread filled the cabin, and she looked up at her top shelf. She was measuring what she had put by, what she had used, what she had left. In turn she looked at the small cupboard they had settled in one corner and each visit there was like going to the general store in town; it held much of her hopes for the time being. That was like saying it wouldn’t last forever, or for the whole winter. She tried to avoid further thoughts on the matter.
But Clougherty was gone and Christmas was coming to sit empty at her doorstep. Sadness hit her and she brushed it off immediately just the way she’d brush away a cobweb or a spider web that drifted down from an upper reach.
The doubts fell away when she recalled Clougherty’s smile. It was always a pleasant sight. Her gaze fell on the boys still buried in deep covers, probably measuring the temperature and how it would feel on them as they rose to get dressed. Each was smiling at her from their warm covers, their smiles more pleasant than Clougherty’s, like Gerard’s, full of thanks as well as love.
Christmas without presents for them bothered her until she smelled the bread again, and gave thanks for its promise, and the aroma of venison with a burnt edge all of them liked pushed her into quick thanks for her husband’s hunting skills and his dogged manner, even if it had brought them here to this place without presents for her children. Gerard, she knew, never needed much more than her in his life. She gave thanks for that.
It was in that one thought, in that one minute, that she realized she had forgotten to mark off the last spent day. This was really a day later; this was really Christmas Day. Muriel Fiddler almost fainted. She had lost a day. This was Christmas Day. The boys, without saying a word, knew it. Gerard obviously knew it, and had not said a word about it.
She was crushed. The meal she was preparing they’d had for three days in a row. She had not prepared anything different, anything extra.
As she shook her head, she heard her two sons whispering under their covers. Were they talking about surprise Christmas presents? Was their mother playing a game with them, being so usual in her actions? Was Gerard saying little but thinking much?
She didn’t know what to do. Best to continue her day, their day, the way she was going. What else could she do but be the mother of the brood? The mother in the apron, at the stove, at meal preparation, at the real important things in life.
“You two stay under the covers until I tell you to get dressed.” Insistence was in her voice, and they did not move.
Spinning on one leg, the knife still in her hand, Gerard looking at her as if he had lost the day already, she said, “Might as well get some more of that wood in here, Gerard, while I have the stove nice and hot. Best bring in a couple of days’ worth. We’ll use it up. The stove’s really hot. Best do it now. That wind is beginning to sound fierce, like a critter in deep pain.” She cast her best smile in support of her request.
She spun back to her work. The two boys sank deeper under covers because the section of wall would be taken down, wood drawn from the pile, the air coming in like a small blast from the far north.
Gerard Fiddler, dreamer, doer, believer in most things, especially in his wife and his children, thankful for at least one good friend and comrade in this life, hastened to do as bid by his wife.
The wall boards, fully vertical all the way, came loose when he took down the three cross bars that Clougherty had put in place. He had done the trick once earlier, just to test it out. The task was easy, and he was thankful for it, thinking of the snow out there. He reached into the pile and extracted the cut logs one piece at a time, sometimes two at a time, his hands feeling the cold come on them with a thick and penetrating smoothness, but no snow coming in with the wood. He almost had a few days’ worth piled on the side before he stacked them beside the stove, when his hand, in another reach into the pile, felt something softer than logs.
He withdrew his hand, then reached again, touched again, and made a sound of surprise in his throat that made Muriel jump, fearing he had been bitten by an incredible critter. The boys had come to sitting positions in their bed across the room, tossing off furs, old coats, and flour bags sewed into severe thickness, ready for whatever.
All of them, Gerard Fiddler, his wife Muriel and their sons, were frozen in place as Christmas, long thought to be absent from this day, came into view in the forms of gaily wrapped packages, four of them, one after another, fell into the room at the feet of Gerard Fiddler. His wife looked on in absolute joy, his sons too, all of them realizing that Cameron Clougherty had done it again, remembered something else he had seen, some special happening that made Christmas the special day it was supposed to be, even as the wind whistled again atop them, winter galloping along under a full grip.
Muriel Fiddler had her wish come true and she was sure that Cameron Clougherty had wanted his wish to be found on Christmas Day, just the way he planned it.