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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006 01:02 am

Christmas Eve 1830

Believe in miracles - if you don't dig too deeply

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Hannah had just finished the supper dishes and opened her sewing basket to get her knitting when she heard a faint cry from the darkness outside.

“Oh, Thomas,” she gasped, “There’s a lost child outside!” She was halfway across the cabin, reaching for her shawl, when her husband grabbed her arm.

“Nonsense, woman,” Thomas said sternly. “There’s no lost child. That’s a panther that’s been roaming the neighborhood. Lucius Norton saw its tracks last week, and his wife saw it when she was riding home from visiting Mrs. Cheney. She said it smiled at her, but it turned and went into the woods. I’ve heard it myself a few nights.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Hannah asked.

“I didn’t see any need to frighten anyone. Now come sit down,” he said, with a glance at the children.

“What’s a panther?” asked Tom, who, like any 4-year old, was always ready with a question.

“It’s a giant cat,” said his sister Jane with the authority of someone who knows. “It’s as big as a hog with razor-sharp claws and big teeth that could eat you in one gulp!” Tom’s eyes widened.

“Now that’s enough of that, Jane,” said Thomas sternly. “It won’t do us any harm if we stay close to the cabin. None of you is to be out of sight of me or your mother at any time. Remember that.”

“It might eat the cow,” said J.M.

“No,” reassured Thomas. “The cow’s safe. I checked the shed out myself — and,” he added with a sly look at his wife, “if it looks like there’s any danger, we’ll bring Bossy in to sleep with us.”

Hannah frowned, though Thomas couldn’t tell whether she was more concerned about the possible invasion of the cougar or of the cow. With this terrible snowy winter, more than one family had actually moved their livestock inside. The Drivers, who always tried to look on the bright side, said the mess they made was offset by the warmth they provided. But to Hannah, who was forever fussing over the difficulty of keeping house in the wilderness, the threat to turn her house into a barn was not something to be taken lightly.

“Could the panther kill us?” asked J.M., thinking that he didn’t want it to kill them but it might be interesting if it killed somebody else.
“It won’t be killing anyone,” said Thomas reassuringly. “There are plenty of animals that get stuck in the snow. The panther only has to pounce on some poor deer or rabbit to get enough food.”

“Which makes him better off than us,” Hannah muttered under her breath as she got her knitting and sat down near the fire.

Tom climbed up in his father’s lap, curled up, and gazed sleepily into the fireplace.

“Now, J.M., put some wood on the fire,” said Thomas. J.M. grudgingly got up from the stool and went to the woodbox to get another log. As he lifted the lid, a draft of cold air came whistling through the cabin.

“There’s not much left,” he said.

“We do have plenty of firewood?” Hannah asked her husband.

“Yes, there’s plenty out back and more in the timber. Don’t worry,” Thomas said.

“They say there won’t be enough lumber for Mrs. Cheney’s coffin if she don’t last until spring,” said Hannah, resuming her knitting, “but it’ll be a wonder if we’re all not dead, come spring.”

“I know this is a bad winter,” said Thomas, “but it’s never been this bad before. I know the snow’s deep enough to have to dig a ditch through it to the creek, but it can’t snow forever. We’ll make it all right, and it’ll be spring before you know it.” He turned to the children. “Would you like me to tell you about the first funeral I ever preached?” said Thomas. “It was on a Christmas Eve, too.”

The children’s eyes lit up. “Yes!” said Jane and J.M. together.

“Ooh, was that when you were a boy in Brumtun?” asked Tom.

“Yes,” laughed Thomas. “This was when I was a boy in Brompton — I was not yet 10 — just about your age, Jane. My father . . .”

“That’s our grandfather,” piped up Tom.

“Yes, that’s your grandfather,” said Thomas. “My father had a number of people working on the farm, and one of them had a boy about my age named Cyrus. He was a wicked boy, always into some mischief. He put pepper in my soup once so that I couldn’t eat it, and the cook thought I had done it, so she wouldn’t give me any more. Another time, he put a frog in my warming pan, and Betsy gave me a lickin’ when it jumped out at her. Of course, Cyrus needed a good walloping, but he was bigger than me, and so he always got the best of me in a scrape.

“But as mean as he was to me, he was just that kind to Buster, an old hound we had that wasn’t much good for hunting. Oh, he’d go to ground all right, but I never saw him track anything that I could tell — just following old trails or who knows what.

“Well, it was Christmas Eve, cold and snowy, and Cyrus came in all moaning and carrying on, with Buster in his arms — killed by a horse that kicked him in the head. There wasn’t nothing to be done, so my brother Robert was told to take him out and bury him. Robert told me to get a shovel so we could bury him in the garden.

“But the ground was too hard, so I suggested that we bury him out where we had been burning some briars earlier that day. I reasoned that the ground would be thawed enough to dig easily.

“We got the dog buried, but Cyrus was still blubbering like a little girl. Robert took off, and I was getting ready to leave when Cyrus said, ‘It don’t seem fittin’ that no words be said over him.’

“‘Well, it’s only a dog,’ I said. ‘He ain’t going to heaven.’

“Well, that just set Cyrus a-blubberin’ some more, and, feeling sorry for him, I determined to say a few words:

“Lord, we come here today to bury this poor critter. He weren’t much, but he were one of your creatures, and it is said that not a sparrow falls but you don’t know about it. We hope you take him to your bosom to raise him on the day of Resurrection. Amen.

“Cyrus seemed much comforted by my words, and we went back to the kitchen to sit by the fire. And, well, what do you think happened then?” Thomas asked the children.

“Cyrus gave you a halfpenny to thank you for your sermon,” said Jane.

“Cyrus found him another dog,” said J.M.

“Nope,” said Thomas. “Not two hours later we heard a scratch at the kitchen door, and what was it but that old hound, covered with dirt and ashes and with a big bump on his head, but not much worse for all that. We figured he wasn’t dead at all but just knocked out, but Cyrus thought my prayer had raised him from the dead, and from that day on he treated me special. He always took off his hat when I passed by, and when your mother and I left for America, he cried the most to see us leave.

“Now, what can we learn from this story?” asked Thomas as Tom slept in his arms.

Hannah said, “Be kind to people, even if they’re mean to you.”

Jane added, “Believe in miracles on Christmas Eve.”

J.M. piped up: “If your dog dies, don’t bury him too deep.”

Jeanette M. Handling supervised the Writing Center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville before her retirement. She lives with her husband in Jacksonville.

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