Because of a Christmas Tree
There was a chill in the air, not a bitter cold one which would freeze a person quite through if they ventured outdoors, but a biting nip that speaks of colder weather coming, the kind which causes coats to be pulled closer, shoulders to shiver and breaths to create little clouds in the air. It was also raining. Not a steady, gentle rain, but a miserable, dreary, unending drizzle which was almost sleet, but not quite. It would almost have been a relief if it had been sleet or snow.
The steps of the lone figure, hunched in an old coat, trudging down the muddy street, if it could be called by such a lofty name, were slow and weary. Each step seemed harder to take than the last one, and it well might be, for each time a booted foot sank down into the miry, sticky mud, it acquired a new layer of the miserable muck, thus making the boot a little heavier and the wearer work a little harder to take yet another one.
“Fiddlesticks!” the man muttered half-aloud. “That boy’s goin’ to have a Christmas if’n I have to hike clear ‘cross the mountains to get it. Humph! They ain’t got the boy livin’ with ‘em, else . . .”
He gave another snort which turned into a cough, yet he didn’t pause but struggled on through the thick mud until at last he reached a small shack set back in the woods and somewhat apart from the others in the small, ramshackle mining camp. Most who lived there had some pride and called their living place a “town.” However the actual look of the settlement was so far removed from what most folks would think of as a town, that I hesitate to call it one. The shacks where the miners lived were simple, one room affairs, drafty and bare. Only a dozen or so such shelters could be found in the area and not one of them had a Christmas tree, though that special day was rapidly approaching; nor was there any sign of Christmas festivities. No where could be seen the touch which bespoke of a woman’s hand, for there were no women. Not one of the men in that mining camp would have considered bringing his wife, daughter, sister or sweetheart to share such a rough and dangerous life.
When Old Marley, as the other miners called him, opened the door and stepped into his shack, a small boy of about nine years of age, with light brown locks of curling hair and golden brown eyes which sparkled with delight, hurried over to greet him.
“Oh, Uncle Marley, you’re back! I’ve been waiting for you. Just think, Mr. Soper has just brought us part of a deer he shot yesterday. I put it in a pot and tonight we can have stew! I think it’ll be ready in a little while.” As the boy talked, he had pulled the older man over near the hot stove and was trying to take off his coat. “Sit down, Uncle Marley, and take your boots off. They are covered in mud again. Maybe the sun will come out tomorrow and the mud will dry. Do you think it might?”
Sinking down onto the three-legged stool, Old Marley coughed before he struggled to remove his boots. “Well, now, I ain’t fer sure, but it don’t look like the sun’s goin’ to remember we’re here ‘till new year, Sonny.”
At that the boy laughed a merry laugh while he assisted in removing the mud covered boots. “Of course the sun remembers us, Uncle Marley,” he smiled. “The sun is always shining, my papa used to tell me.” His young face grew sober but he went on steadily. “It’s just that the clouds get in the way of our seeing it. And there have been a lot of clouds.” This last was almost to himself, but the older man heard.
There were several long minutes of silence in the little shack as the old man and the young boy sat together before the fire in the stove. The wind picked up outside and shook the stove pipe, thereby sending small bits of soot into the small house. A branch knocked against the one window with a gentle tapping, and a soft pattering of rain was heard on the roof.
At last the old man roused himself and got to his feet stiffly. Lifting the lid of the pot on the stove, he sniffed the simmering stew and nodded. “Sure’ll taste good tonight,” was all the remark he made as he set the lid back on, shuffled over to a small cabinet and brought out two tin bowls and mugs.
Instantly the boy was also on his feet and hurried over to help set the small, rough hewn slab of wood they called their table.
“One of these days we’ll make us a real table, Sonny,” Old Marley often said, but there never seemed to be time, for gold hunting and game hunting took up most of the daylight hours, and there were stories to be told in the evening or visiting with the other men.
After bringing over the two stools, the boy asked, “Uncle Marley, do you think we’ll have snow tomorrow?”
Old Marley turned around. “I thought you said it was goin’ to be sunny, boy?”
The boy laughed again. “So it will, but perhaps snow clouds will get in the way and send us something besides rain. Wouldn’t the woods and hills look pretty with a blanket of snow, Uncle Marley? I think they would. And then your boots wouldn’t be so heavy because the mud would all be frozen. I’ll clean them for you just as soon as we finish eating.”
Old Marley carried the two bowls full of the steaming stew over and set them on the table. Then he poured himself a cup of strong tea. Most of the other men in the nearby shacks preferred coffee to tea, but Old Marley was different. No one knew how old he really was, for, though his hair was heavily sprinkled with grey,in the warmer months he was almost as spry as the young men. It was only during the cold of winter that he seemed older, though he tried not to show it, especially now that the boy was living with him.
The boy’s full name was Michael Edwin McCormick, it said so in the small Bible which had been discovered in the saddle bag and I’m sure it was right, but everyone called him Sonny. The name just seemed to fit the small boy, for he was almost always smiling and laughing. He took delight in all the little things he or the men found in the woods, and when one of the men found a bit of gold, Sonny was as excited as though he himself had discovered it.
Since it was Old Marley who had first discovered the boy, he seemed to feel it was up to him to take care of Sonny. At least until some kin folk came to claim him. That had been several months ago and Old Marley often wondered how hard it would be to give him up.
Would you like living in a mining camp?