50 The Rifle
It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn't been enough money to buy me the rifle that I'd wanted so badly that year for Christmas.
After supper, Dad bundled up and went outside. Soon he came back in. It was a cold night out and there was ice in his beard. "Come on, Matt," he said. "Bundle up. It's cold out tonight."
I was really upset. Not only wasn't I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Dad was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see. But I knew Dad was not very patient at one dragging one's feet when he'd told them to do something, so I got up and put my boots on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Mum gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up , but I didn't know what.
There in front of the house was the work-team , already hitched to the big sled .When I was on, Dad pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. Dad went in and came out with an armload of wood. "Dad," I asked, "what are you doing?"
You've been by the widow Jensen's lately? he asked.
The widow Jensen lived two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year before and left her with three children. Sure, I'd been by, but so what?
Yeah, I said. "Why?"
I rode by just today, Dad said. "Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They're out of wood, Matt."
And then he went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him.
We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Then we went to the smoke house and Dad took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand. "What's in the little sack?" I asked.
Shoes. They're out of shoes. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn't be Christmas without a little candy.
We rode to widow Jensen's pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Dad was doing. We didn't have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile; we also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn't have any money, so why was Dad buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us. It shouldn't have been our concern.
We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in.
We brought you a few things, Ma'am, Dad said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Dad handed her the sack with shoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Dad like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out.
We brought a load of wood too, Ma'am, Dad said, then he turned to me and said, "Matt, go bring enough in to last for a while. Let's get that fire up and heat this place up."
I wasn't the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes too. In my mind I kept seeing widow Jensen standing there with tears running down her cheeks and so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn't speak. My heart swelled within me and a joy filled my soul that I'd never known before.
I soon had the fire blazing and everyone's spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Dad handed them each a piece of candy and widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn't crossed her face for a long time.
Tears were running down widow Jensen's face again when we stood up to leave.
Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn't even notice the cold. When we had gone a long way, Dad turned to me and said, "Matt, I want you to know something. Your Mum and I have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn't have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square . Your Mum and I were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that. But on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunnysacks and I knew what I had to do. So, son, I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand."
I understood very well, and I was so glad Dad had done it. Just then the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities . Dad had given me much more than a rifle that night—he had given me the best Christmas of my life.