A Christmas Story

By Jay W. Badry
She vaguely heard him leave the bed that morning; her mind was somewhere between unconsciousness and twilight reality. He had told her that he’d seen some wild turkeys near the woods by the north pasture. There was one particular tom he thought would make a good centerpiece for their Christmas table. It was two hours later when her mind began to focus on the day ahead. It was bitter cold outside, but JD had stirred, filled and banked the fire before leaving on his holiday mission. In the time since his departure, the small home had warmed greatly and the glowing ambers of the logs bathed the room in a soft, red-orange glow. Sally reached for her robe and wrapped it tightly as a further barrier against the winter cold. An ample supply of firewood was stacked next to the fireplace, thoughtfully placed there for her convenience. She carefully stirred the remains of the fire, shook the loose ash from the largest log with the poker as flames caught once again. One by one, she placed the wood where it could capture the growing heat. Hungry flames began to lick the dry logs and the gentle glow began to grow into a burning flame. She reached for a long, thin stick to light the oil lamp. Gray light was crawling through the window giving evidence that dawn was not far away, but the small house was still filled with shadows dancing in the light of the fire. As the lamp took hold, the Spartan furnishings became clear. A small table made of wooden planks, fitted together by knowing hands sat in the middle of the room. A lovely cherry wood rocking chair sat close to the stone fireplace, the one remnant of her life in Alabama prior to coming into Indian Territory in the Land Rush. How well Sally remembered that April day when they’d made their way to the land that would become their new homestead. She’d driven the wagon, pulled by matching gray mules that were the envy of any knowing farmer who examined them for more than a moment. JD had ridden Buck, the line-back dun with black mane and tail. All but Buck’s left foreleg had black stockings. The wagon was filled with supplies they would need, a number of wooden stakes to measure out their new land as well as the rocker that would remind her of the life she’d left behind to follow a dream. For two long days they made their trek across the open land until they found the place he’d scouted the summer before. Of course, it had been dangerous, crossing miles of Indian Territory alone, but he trusted to his senses and his two close friends: Mr. Colt and Mr. Winchester to keep him safe.

There had been one close call when he’d encountered a young brave at a water hole northwest of the place he would soon call home. It was in his mind to fill his spare canteen since he never knew when he would have need of additional water. He knew better than to ride up to a water source. All manner of critter, wild or human could be finding refreshment there. JD picketed the dun in a stand of cottonwoods that had alerted him to the water and quietly made his way toward the natural, spring-fed pool with caution. His best efforts at silence betrayed him as the young warrior sensed more than heard his approach. His Winchester was in his left hand, the strap held his colt firmly in place, but in his right hand he carried a hand-made Bowie knife with the blade held up ready for anything. That knife had been made by a man simply known as The Tinker and was razor sharp. He stopped short as his eyes caught sight of the brave with long, greasy hair and a breach-cloth and leggings going down to his moccasins with beautiful Cherokee bead-work. Their eyes met in a single moment of appraisal. Not knowing how close the Indian’s friends might be, JD instinctively dropped the rifle and ran full force toward the warrior as the Indian reached for the tomahawk at his side. With incredible speed, the tomahawk flew though the air. It was only a roll of the head saved JD’s life, but it must have cut a gash on the side of his head as blood dripped down his face. Two more strides and they were face to face. The young Cherokee was not used to the rough and tumble fighting JD had grown up with while still a teen working long hours on the docks along the coast of Alabama. He struck a hard left to the mid-section of the shirtless Indian that took his breath away. In a mad and frantic move to save his life, the brave tried to grasp the wrist of JD’s right hand to stave off the deadly blade. But JD was too quick and drove the steel deep into his adversary and ripped upward. Their faces were inches apart and the deep black eyes of the young brave who would get no older fixed their gaze in a panic realization of life fading fast. JD had never taken a human life before, having been too young to fight in the War Between the States. In that moment, he hoped never again to know the anguish of killing another man. Of course, it had been kill or be killed, but it made little difference in that deadly moment. That had been the summer of ’88, more than five years ago. JD had actually traded with the very tribe the young Indian had come from, although not the actual band. He’d found the Cherokees to be quick witted people who, although not wishing to do so, learned to change with the times. They traded well; seeming to enjoy to give and take of barter. At times, JD let them get the better of him while never losing his position of strength. Sally began her Christmas Day by making coffee and putting it by the fire to boil. It had taken her quite a while to learn to cook over an open fire before they actually got a stove for their home. It would take her some time to get the stove heated so she would use her open flame cooking skills for her breakfast of fresh eggs, ham and one of yesterday’s biscuits.

She mentally reviewed her Christmas evening meal. Of course, she fully expected JD to return with a fat tom turkey, but if all else failed, they could kill one of the hens or pull a ham from the smokehouse. Their garden had been quite successful this year after four seasons of improving the soil; red clay when they came in the spring of ’89, but with the addition of manure and compost, had produced a bumper crop of vegetables she’d canned with pride. Her evening table would include green beans, corn and stewed tomatoes. Mashed potatoes would suffice instead of the more traditional stuffing Sally remembered from her Alabama childhood. Hot bread would be formed into small loaves for the occasion with sweet, creamy butter and preserves made from the first fruit of the apricot trees they’d planted. Desert would be a deep dish apple pie made from the fruit of their own small apple grove. What a difference these years had made. The first Christmas hadn’t been so bad, but years two and three had been lean indeed. In fact, the winter of ’91 had been the hardest by far. A hot, dry summer had dwarfed the yield of her vegetable garden and the bitter cold of winter had caused the game to migrate far from their homestead. There were days when a little flour mixed with water melted from snow was their only nourishment. How they’d survived that winter was still a mystery. It seemed so long ago when actually, it had only been two brief years. JD had built a barn to house their milk cow, Agnes as well as Buck and the two mules. A chicken coup and rabbit hutches were near the pig pen; strategically planned in the low area normally downwind of the house. On those rare occasions when the breeze shifted to the east, Sally was reminded of the hogs’ presence by the pungent aroma. As deer and wild turkey became scarcer, the addition of chickens, rabbits and pigs made life on the prairie much easier. Last year, JD had traded a rancher to the south some grain for a nice, young bull and five cows, all of whom had calved. It was a start to the herd he had dreamed of for years. They pastured to the north which was deep in native grass and had a small stream that had been dammed up to form a nice pond. A thick stand of oaks bordered the pasture to the north, providing a wind break when the brutal north wind swept through bringing bitter, winter cold. Sally began to peal the apples for her pie, slicing them very thin as JD liked to have them. Her mind drifted to her childhood when she’d carefully observed her grandmother perform a similar task. How old had she been when she’d sat in rapt attention, asking questions about the best technique for baking a pie? Perhaps eight, although it might have been earlier. It seemed that all she’d ever wanted was to be a wife and mother. A smile crossed her lips as she recalled how her friends had shaken their heads and clicked their tongues when they heard she was moving west. They simply couldn’t wrap their minds around someone they knew leaving the security of home for the uncertainty of the Wild West.

Texas, they might have understood, for Texas had long ago become civilized, but Indian Territory? What about the savages? Not to mention that there would be no doctor close by in case of sickness, disease or injury. And what about childbirth? The chances of even having another woman within twenty miles to assist her were remote. But Sally had thought of all those questions and understood the risks. Perhaps it was that she had always had a steak of rebel in her or maybe it was the way JD’s eyes lighted up whenever he spoke of “going west.” His father had been killed at Shiloh when JD was four. He’d been forced to leave school in the eighth grade and go to work to support his mother. He had gone south to the coast and worked the docks with grown men when he was only fourteen. Each month, he faithfully sent money back to his mother and grandmother. When JD returned ten years later for his grandmother’s funeral, he was a man grown. Although he rarely spoke of his days on the dock, she knew it had been a tough go, working with men more than twice his age. He had a small scar above his left eye; evidence of a scrap of some kind. His arms and shoulders gave indication of the years of labor moving hundred pound bags of grain. Only his eyes were the same; laughing eyes that sparkled whenever he revealed the dreams he’d held inside for so long. That was late fall in 1882 when Sally was only fourteen. No one would believe that the moment she’d seen JD she set her cap for him. He seemed so strong and self assured, but without the hardness of other men who had endured so much in the years following the War. Poverty and want had moved through the south like the fires that swept through Atlanta on Sherman’s march to the sea. Most of the men Sally knew were filled with despair and silent desperation, but not JD. He had a vivacious personality born of optimism. JD never met a stranger and knew the meaning of hard work. Whatever he took hold of moved and when he made up his mind to do something, somehow it was accomplished. That had been the recipe for the success of their homestead. When JD decided to stay in central Alabama, he found a job with the local freight company owned by Sally’s father. She remembered the day he’d first come to the house and met with her father in the study. He must have been intimidated by the rich surroundings of the white colonial Grayson estate, but he never showed it. She pretended to have business in the foyer and listened in on the interview. Her father, a kind man, but a shrewd businessman, posed question after question to which JD responded with direct and cogent answers. When the interview was over, her father offered, not the job JD had come requesting, but the position of Assistant Manager. He saw in this young man the potential others had missed. He believed JD had the raw material he himself had possessed in his mid-twenties and wanted to see that potential grow and mature.

Within a year, his faith was rewarded as JD took to management with natural aptitude. Yet, unlike many a young man who rises above his peers, he did not see himself as above the dignity of manual labor. When there was a difficult loading job, JD would take up his gloves and join the fray. He always kept a spare work shirt at the office for just such occasions. Grayson noticed that the men had a special respect for JD because, although he was their boss, he was also one of them. Productivity rose dramatically in that first year. By the winter of ’84, JD became a regular around the Grayson’s dinner table each Sunday. Perhaps it was just good business, spending time with the owner of the company one served, but the fact that Sally was growing into a beautiful young woman of marrying age didn’t hurt either. By springtime, 1885, JD and Sally were taking regular walks together on Sunday afternoons. She never tired of listening to him talk about the future. “One day, I’m going west and own my own spread. I know you father has plans for me, but I’m not cut out for taking over something built by someone else. I want to carve my future out with my own two hands and watch it grow into something special.” She not only listened as his voice would rise to a crescendo, but she watched his eyes as they would sparkle and get a faraway look. She longed to ride with him into the west and stand beside him as dreams became reality. On June 20, 1886, JD and Sally stood before the altar to exchange vows on a Sunday afternoon. He took her to New Orleans for their honeymoon and they set up house in a blue clapboard, two bedroom home with bright, white trip and a white picket fence. It didn’t take Sally long to create a warm and inviting environment while JD continued working long hours at the shipping company that had expanded dramatically in the four years since he’d started. Rumor began to spread in the spring of ’88 that Indian Territory might be opened up for settlement. Two days after their second anniversary, JD took three weeks and traveled west to scout out a suitable homestead sight. When he came to the place they would one day call home, he knew it immediately. He understood the need for water, timber and good ground. He didn’t want to be a farmer, but knew that would be the fastest way to become established. The following April, JD and Sally left Alabama forever and followed the sunset toward their dream of a new life. In the wagon, along with supplies were several burlap bags filled with corn and wheat seed. The man who said, “Sooner or later, every great dream deteriorates into hard work” had certainly known what he was talking about. It’s easy to envision future success and quite another thing to bring it to reality. By early-afternoon, Sally was well on her way to completing their Christmas dinner. All she needed now was for her husband to come home with or without a turkey. It would take time to clean and cook the bird or make other arrangements for the centerpiece of their table. It was just before 2 o’clock when JD rode up to the house. Hanging from his saddle horn was a goodsized gobbler, but Sally’s eyes went to the paint pony trailing behind Buck. Attached to the paint

were two long poles with strips of leather and rope to make a travois. Lying on the travois was a man with his leg in a splint who was obviously an Indian. “Sorry it took me so long, Sally, but I saw this Cherokee and figured you wouldn’t mind a guest for Christmas dinner.” The twinkle in his eyes was one of the things that had captured Sally’s heart. “I was on the way home when I came across Spotted Eagle here. He’d fallen and broken his leg. He’d have been in a bad way if he’d had to stay the night in the woods.” JD carefully moved the injured brave into the house and over by the fire. Sally put some water on to boil and moved over to assist with removing the bandages with which her husband had secured the wound. “Let me clean and redress the wound while you clean and dress the bird,” Sally stated. “We need to get it cooking if we have any hope of eating Christmas dinner tonight.” As JD moved to the door, the black eyes of the Indian danced around the room taking in the treasures found there. JD had traded with Spotted Eagle in the past and was one of the very few white men the Indian trusted. But Spotted Eagle had never been on the property nor seen JD’s young wife. Her hands moved quickly yet cautiously, careful not to add to the young man’s discomfort, although he gave no indication that his injury caused him pain. Dipping a clean rag into boiling water, Sally bathed the wound, cleaning off the dried blood and dirt. As she did so, she began to hum her favorite Christmas carol, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The gentle melody added a sense of calm to Sally’s heart as she worked on the gruesome compound fracture. JD had set the bone in place before splinting the leg, but didn’t take the time to build a fire and boil water, preferring to bring the young brave to his house for additional care. Once the wound was clean, Sally reached into a basket and removed some moss she had collected for just such a purpose. The Indians had taught them that certain herbs and even mosses could actually be used for medicinal purposes. She had gathered and stored a number of them and kept them readily at hand. She smiled at the Indian as she redressed his wound, continuing her soft humming. By the time her task was completed, JD was entering with the turkey dressed and ready to be baked. Sally had the oven heated and all her herbs ready for the big bird. She separated the skin from the meat and massaged in between with her mixture of fresh butter and herbs. As the bird baked, it would baste itself and take some of the gameness away, leaving rich flavor and moist, tender meat. Dinner would be later than she had planned, but that would simply make Christmas last longer. In the corner of the main room was a small pine tree decorated with a few shiny things they possessed. Under the tree, were two packages wrapped in tea towels and fabric ribbons that notmally adorned Sally’s hair. While the bird baked in the wood stove, JD eyed the packages.

“Should we exchange gifts now,” he asked. Sally smiled knowing he was like a small kid on Christmas morning. “OK, but you open yours first.” She retrieved the small package from under the tree she’d wrapped with such care. JD pulled the ribbon and slowly unwrapped the small box. Inside was a beautiful, gold pocket watch that he immediately recognized it as the one Mr. Grayson had carried. “Oh, Sally it’s wonderful. But how did you get this?” “Father wrote me months ago and asked if I thought you would want it. He really loves you, you know. Even if we hadn’t married, I think he would have adopted you. He mailed it to Mary Peters so you wouldn’t know and I’ve had it hidden since October. Do you really like it?” “It’s one of two things your Dad had that I really wanted. I married the other. Now, open your present,” he said as he handed her the package he’d crudely wrapped. Sally took it in her hands and held it for a moment, pretending to admire his attempt at neatness. “Hey, I did my best!” “Well, they do say that it’s the thought that counts and I thank you, Sir for the effort.” Sally began to remove the fabric and open the box. Inside, was a lovely cameo necklace. “JD, how did you afford this? It’s absolutely beautiful!” “Sally, it’s not polite to ask such a question, but if you must know, I traded McAlister some prime pelts for it at the Emporium. He was thrilled to get them but I think I got the better of him. I promise he never got the response from the recipients of those pelts that I just received from you.” She fell into his arms and held him tight. She always felt so secure in his arms as though she was born for them. It was then that JD moved back to the little tree. Funny, but Sally had not noticed the third package at the back, almost in the corner. JD took hold of the package and strode over to the man by the fire who’d been silently observing the festivities. “Spotted Eagle, I know your beliefs are much different than ours, but I’d be pleased if you would take this.” “You are strong warrior,” the Indian stated. “Thank you, friend.” He removed the fabric as JD and Sally had done and looked at the Bowie knife. “It was made by a man far from here we knew as The Tinker. It’s a warrior’s knife and I give it to a mighty warrior.” Spotted Eagle smiled, set the knife beside him on the floor and closed his eyes, suddenly very tired. By the time the turkey was finally ready, the sun had long past set and the moon risen. With a fire raging and soft candle light bathing the room, Sally and JD sat down to dine. They joined hands and began to thank God for His rich bounty and many blessings. Spotted Eagle

didn’t miss a word and wondered after the strange actions of the white people. However, the aroma of the food filled him with hunger and his stomach growled. Sally prepared a plate covered with food and brought it to the injured man. Her smile was contagious as she presented the plate. He was cautious at first, but once begun, he devoured the food. The meal concluded with a large slice of apple pie; the sweet filling oozing from between two layers of flakey crust. Spotted Eagle had never eaten apple pie, but would never forget his first slice. He’d know this white man; even traded with him, but know considered him a friend. He didn’t understand these strange customs, but in the years to come, he would learn much about the white man’s God and this was his introduction. As JD and Sally retired for the evening they held each other close and again thanked God for the special day. Sally thanked God for keeping JD safe on the hunt and providing the turkey. JD thanked God for Sally and her willingness to come west with him. They both prayed for Spotted Eagle’s recovery. As their eyes closed with weariness, neither were aware of the wounded warrior standing on one leg in at the table eating one more piece of apple pie. -30-

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