"But you told me Santa Claus would come tonight," Glenna said as she followed her mother from the stove to the kitchen table. "You told me if I'd be good, Santa Claus would come tonight and bring me a doll. You said he'd bring me candy!"
Mom didn't answer Glenna. She lifted the pan of hot, steaming corn bread from the oven. Then she cut it into squares with a case knife. She lifted each square from the pan with a spatula and put it on the bread plate.
"Tell me why Santa Claus isn't coming," Glenna asked Mom.
"I've told you once," Mom said. "Go to the window and look at the snow on the ground. Santa Claus is snowbound. The snow is too deep for his reindeer and his sleigh!"
"But, Mom, you told me that Santa Claus went to the housetops with his reindeer and his sleigh!" Glenna said. "If he can drive them to the housetops, it looks like he could drive them through the deep snow and bring presents and toys to all the good boys and girls!"
Mom didn't know what to say. Glenna wasn't yet 5 years old. And she had been as good as she knew how to be through October, November and December. Mom had told her that Christmas would soon come and if she wanted fruits, candies and toys she would have to eat her food at the table. She couldn't go outside into the frosty air without her mittens on ... she couldn't say naughty things to her playmates ... or be selfish with her brother when they played together with only a few toys.
When Glenna disobeyed, Mom would remind her that Santa Claus would know the little boys and girls that had been naughty when Christmas came. Then, Glenna would be nice, for she wanted Santa Claus to visit her. So when Mom told her she thought Santa Claus would be snowbound, it was hard for Glenna to accept. She was disappointed.
"But Mom, I want Santa Claus to come," Glenna said, hanging on to Mom's dress and crying.
"Glenna, didn't Mom tell you Santa Claus would be snowbound?" Sophia said.
Sophia was my oldest sister, and she understood that Santa Claus was snowbound. She was 12 and I was 10 years old. She understood about Mom, too.
Sophia knew why Santa Claus hadn't been able to get to our shack. The heavy snow, 22 inches deep, that had fallen two weeks before in Beecher's Cove was still on the ground. Sophia and I knew that the time wasn't far when we'd have another little brother or sister. Mom didn't walk much in the snow. She certainly couldn't walk five miles over the mountain to Greenwood. She'd have a mountain to go down, and the paths might be slick. When she came back home to Beecher's Cove, she'd have a mountain to climb.
There was another reason why Santa Claus might miss our shack this year.
Pa was down sick. He'd had influenza and gotten up too soon and had suffered a relapse. We had barely enough money to buy food. That is why Sophia and I never expected Santa to visit us. But James and Glenna expected him to drive his reindeer over the snow, even if it was 22 inches deep where it wasn't drifted, and many feet deep in some of the drifts. They expected him to come down the chimney with a bag of toys and fill their stockings.
"Come to supper, children," Mom said as she put the plates of hot corn bread on the table.
When we gathered around the table with its scantily filled dishes of hot food, Mom fixed a few slices of buttered hot corn bread for Pa. And she took him a small pitcher of cold buttermilk. When she returned from the front room where Pa had lain from the time the heavy snow had fallen, she found us eating our suppers. Mom sat down and there was a worried look on her face. There were dark circles under her eyes. She hadn't any more than sat down when Glenna began asking her if she thought Santa Claus would get through the drifts and bring candy, fruits and toys to her and James. Then Glenna told Mom how good she had been, and that she knew Santa Claus wouldn't forget a good little girl.
Tears came into Mom's eyes and ran over the dark half-moon circles and down her cheeks.
"I wonder if Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever worked harder than I have," Mom said. "I wonder, sometimes, if she ever had more worries! It's awful when you want to do something and can't!"
"Don't worry, Mom," Sophia said. "If Santa Claus doesn't get here this year, maybe he'll be able to come next year. Maybe there won't be any deep snow next year. Then he won't have any trouble getting to our house!"
"But I want him to come THIS year," James said. "I don't want to wait another year! That's too long to wait!"
"Maybe he'll come tonight," Mom said half-heartedly.
"I'll hang up my stocking," James said.
James and Glenna were then so eager for Santa Claus to come, and so excited about what they thought he might bring them, they could hardly eat their suppers.
"Now you must eat your food," Mom told them. "Remember, if Santa Claus is able to get here at all, he'll be here tonight."
Just as soon as they had finished supper they wanted to go to bed. They wanted to go to sleep and wake up the next morning with something in their stockings and shoes. When they pulled off their shoes, they set them near the fireplace where Santa Claus couldn't miss them when he came down the chimney.
When they pulled off their stockings, Sophia took down the fire tongs from a nail and hung Glenna's stocking there. On the other side of the fireplace, she took down the pothooks and hung James's stocking on this nail.
"Now, your stockings are hung by the chimney with care," Sophia said. "Let us hope that Saint Nick'll find 'em! Let us hope that he'll be here!"
That was assurance enough for James and Glenna. Sophia put Glenna in her bed and James in my bed. On these cold winter nights, after the big fire died down in the fireplace, the house got COLD! Sophia slept with Glenna, and I slept with James so we could keep them covered and warm. Mom slept in the room with Pa so she could wait on him throughout the night.
"This will be a bleak Christmas for us," Mom said as soon as Sophia came back into the kitchen. "They expect Santa Claus. I'm afraid he won't be here! If we only had something!"
Sophia didn't say anything, and I didn't say anything. We sat in silence, watching the fire. Suddenly there was a loud knocking at the door.
"Wonder who that could be'?" Mom said. "Shan, open the door."
When I opened the door, a gust of cold wind blew past an old man who was standing there before me shaking like a white oak leaf in the winter wind. He had a bundle of clothes across his shoulder, tied to the end of a stick. He didn't have gloves on his hands.
"Son, could a man find shelter for the night here?" he asked me.
I could hear his teeth chattering above the cracking of the wood on the fire. "I can feel that big fire you have, plumb out here," he said as I looked at Mom for an answer.
"Your father is sick, Shan," Mom said. "You are the man of the house!"
"But, Mom," I said. "I don't know what to do!"
I was thinking of the beds. We didn't have a bed for him, unless he slept with James and me. But I couldn't say that to him.
"You know that your Pa and me never turned anybody out in our lives," Mom said. "And never on a night like this!"
"Then come in, mister," I said. "Come in and share our fire!"
The old man shot past me like a bullet. He got up so close to the fire that smoke came from his pants. And lumps of ice and snow melted from the strings and straps on his boots and ran into a little stream across the rough stone hearth into the ashes. When the icicles melted in his gray mustache and the gray beard on his face, he wiped the water away with a big, soiled, red bandanna with one hand, while with his other hand he held his turkey of clothes. Mom and Sophia watched the big man as he gathered warmth from the fire.
"You'd better watch yourself," Mom said. "You'll get too hot. After you've been so cold, it will not be good for you!"
"I know, ma'am," the old man said, "but I might nigh froze to death! And if I'd a-been turned down here, I would have froze. I wouldn't have tried to go on!"
Mom went into the kitchen while the stranger stood before the fire. She brought a wash pan filled with ice water.
"Sit down now, mister," she said. "Take off your boots and put your feet in this water. If you don't, I'm afraid your feet will frostbite!"
The man did as Mom told him. He pulled off his weather-scarred boots and his socks that were filled with holes. He put his feet into the water. Then he put his hands down beside his feet. His hands were big and gnarled, like the ground roots that spread from an ancient tree. He had hands like Grandpa's hands; and Grandpa was a timber cutter. Melted snow water still ran from his mustache and beard. And he groaned with pain as he kept his hands and feet in the cold water.
"I'm afraid you've frostbitten your hands and feet," Mom said. "And this is the best remedy I know!"
"It is that, ma'am," the old man said. "I've done it many a time when I used to come home from the timber woods! This remedy will stop frostbite. How kind of you to think of it! I was too cold to think!"
"How far have you walked?" Mom asked.
"About 30 miles today," he said.
"Thirty miles in weather like this?" Mom said.
"Yes," he said. "Before I got here, I stopped at seven homes! And, mind you, ma'am," he grunted as he sat bent over in his chair with his hands and feet still in the pan of cold water, "they were good-looking homes. And each one had a Christmas tree, and there was warmth and brightness within. And people were laughing and talking, and they were happy. And when each door opened, I could smell the food and feel the warmth, and it made me sick down deep within."
"You've not had your supper?" Mom asked.
"No, ma'am, I've not," he grunted.
"Then you shall have something to eat," Mom said. "Shan, put a fire in the stove."
"Oh, how kind of you, ma'am," the old man said.
I went back into the kitchen and built a fire in the stove. When I came back into the front room, the old man had his hands and feet out of the pan of water and was putting his boots on. The icicles had melted from his beard and mustache, and the bright, warm fire had dried them. There was a good color in his face where it wasn't covered with long, white beard. His lips were no longer as blue as the skin of a wild grape.
"Ma'am, this is the nearest I've ever come to freezing to death," he said as soon as he had tied the last buckskin boot string. "I'll tell you who I am, and what I'm a-doin. Sorry I was too cold to tell you a while ago!"
He got up from his chair. He was so tall his head almost hit the joists of our low front room. "My name is Rufus Isom," he said. "I'm from Bruin Creek in Elliott County. I've been on the road two days. I thought I could walk to my son John Isom's place for Christmas Eve. He lives on Hood's Creek in this county.
"Do you know where that is?"
"You've got 20 miles to go yet!" I said.
"I've always been able to walk 40 miles a day," Mr. Isom said. "But I've only made about 30 miles a day through this snow!"
"My name is Martha Powderjay," Mom said. "And this is Shan and Sophia. I have two more, Glenna and James, in bed asleep, waiting for Santa Claus to come. Mick Powderjay my husband, is bedfast from a relapse of influenza. He's been bedfast for a month and a half!"
"Mrs. Powderjay," Rufus Isom said, "it's hard for me to believe that so many people living in big houses, and with so much, turned me from their doors. And you, under these circumstances, have taken me in and given me the warmth of your fire, saved my feet and hands from frostbite. And now you are going to feed me!"
Mom and Sophia went into the kitchen, and I sat before the fire with Rufus Isom.
While we sat before the fire, I noticed that he looked at the empty stockings hanging up on each side of the fireplace. Then he looked around at our furniture. He put his boots near the fire and warmed his feet through his boots. He warmed his big gnarled hands. His giant body absorbed warmth before our fire until his face was flushed and his eyes looked sleepy.
"This fire is wonderful," he said. "Who made it?"
"I did, sir." I said. "I made the fire and got the wood!"
"Mighty good for a boy your age," he said.
I didn't have long to talk with Rufus Isom before Mom came to the door and called him to the kitchen for supper. She had baked a pan of hot corn bread. She had a pitcher of milk, a dish of potatoes, fried tender pork loins, meat gravy and coffee. That was more than we'd had for our suppers. Mom gave him the best we had. Rufus Isom ate like he was starved.
After he had eaten his supper, Sophia stacked the dishes, and Mom and I went back to the front room with Rufus Isom.
"Will Santa Claus come tonight to the little fellers?" he asked Mom.
"I'm afraid he won't, Mr. Isom," Mom said. "I had to tell them before they went to bed that Santa Claus was snowbound. I couldn't lie to them. I didn't want them to get up in the morning expecting something and be disappointed!"
Rufus Isom looked into the fireplace. And he was very silent. Then he looked at the empty stockings. His big blue eyes moved in their wrinkled sockets as he looked first at the fire, then at the empty stockings, and then he would glance over and look at Mom. Mom looked into the blazing fire thoughtfully. Maybe she was thinking of other Christmases when the stockings that hung before our fireplace had been filled with candy, nuts and fruit, and there were toys for each of us stuffed in our shoes, or lying behind them, or hanging from a Christmas tree. But this Christmas was different. It was the only bleak Christmas I could remember. We had always loved Christmastime. We had waited from one Christmas to the next in joyful expectancy.
"Mrs. Powderjay, would you care if I take a few things from my turkey and put into your little one's stockings?" Rufus Isom asked Mom. "I started to take them to my son John's two little ones. But I won't get there in time. It will be late tomorrow before I get to his home, with 20 miles yet to go!"
"But you have brought them for your own grandchildren!" Mom said.
"Just some little things," he said. "Santa Claus will come to my grandchildren anyway, and I'll make some more toys for them after I get there.
"Now, I want to do something," he talked on softly, "to make Christmas happier for you and your children, since you have done so much for me! You have saved my life! Every place I stopped, I was told to come to the Powderjays. They told me that you people would keep wayfarers for the night!"
"We never turned anybody from our door," Mom said.
Then Rufus Isom opened his turkey and brought out a sack of stick candy.
The sticks were yellow, red and white. It was peppermint candy. He divided the candy and put an equal number of sticks in each stocking. Then he took a small package of hickory nuts and hazelnuts from his turkey. He divided the nuts and put an equal portion in each stocking.
"I've got some little things here I made," he said. "See, it's hard for us to get toys back where I live. We make most of our toys!"
He had made little rabbits and squirrels from acorns. He put a little set of acorn cups and saucers into Glenna's stocking, and he put the rabbits and squirrels in James' stocking. He had whittled out little baskets from hickory nuts and walnuts, and he divided them between the stockings. He put a cornstalk fiddle and bow and an elderberry squirt gun into James' stocking.
He put a little churn, dasher and lid, that he had made from a hollow sourwood, into Glenna's stocking.
"Just some little things that I sit around before the fire and make nowadays," he said.
"Just make them to kill time. Tonight, it does my heart good that I brought them!"
"Those things are beautiful," Mom said. "You are a real Santa Claus!"
Sophia and I looked on eagerly as he hung the stockings back on the nails.
And a smile came over Mom's face. She was pleased. I'd never seen her look happier. Santa Claus would not be snowbound now! Santa Claus had waded through the snow without his reindeer and sleigh. He had walked 60 miles, too. He'd been two days on the road. And Santa Claus was nearly frozen, and he was mighty hungry when he came to our shack.
But he had come, and it would be a happy Christmas!
That night Rufus Isom took half of James' and my bed. But James was asleep.
And I didn't care. Rufus Isom was so big that it took half the width of the bed for his broad shoulders, for he slept on his back. And he was so long that his feet stuck over the bed. James and I slept on our half of the bed. or a little less than half the bed that night. And once in the night James talked in his sleep about Santa Claus.
Long before daylight, I was awakened by the crowing roosters. I got up and built a fire.
While Mom and Sophia were getting breakfast, I fed the livestock, hogs and chickens and I milked the cow. When I returned to the house, Rufus was up and dressed. He was sitting before the fire, when something happened. Glenna and James woke at about the same time, and they ran to the fireplace to look at their stockings.
"Santa Claus HAS come!" Glenna shouted. "My stocking is full!"
"Look at my stocking!" James shouted as he followed Glenna.
A big smile came over Rufus Isom's face as he watched Glenna and James, who passed by him, too excited to see him. When they found the nuts and the long sticks of peppermint candy, they shouted with joy. When they found the little toys, they were so happy they could hardly speak. They ran in the kitchen to show Mom and Sophia.
"Santa Claus wasn't snowbound," Glenna shouted as she went through the door toward the kitchen. "He wasn't snowbound, Mom! He got here!"
"It wasn't too cold for Santa Claus, Mom," James shouted as he followed Glenna.
"No, James, Santa Claus is here now," Mom laughed. "It was too cold for him to go on last night. He slept with you and Shan!"
"Oh, where is he, Mom?" James asked.
"Where is Santa Claus, Mom?" Glenna shouted.
"He's sittin' before the fire in the livin' room," Mom said.
Then, James and Glenna ran from the kitchen to the living room, screaming with joy as they raced to be the first one to see Santa Claus.
James jumped on his lap. Glenna ran behind his chair and put her arms around his neck.
"Santa Claus, I love you," she said. "And I'm glad you weren't snowbound after all!"
"Oh, thank you, thank you," Santa said. "Now, I must be on my way," he said as he took the basket of food Mom was holding for him.
James and Glenna began to cry.
"If I come back to you next year," he said, "you'll have to dry your tears. I must go now to see the good little boys and girls I didn't get to see last night."
At last the time came for Santa to say goodbye to all of us. With a basket on his arm, and a turkey of toys, clothes, and candy fastened to the end of a stick that rested across his shoulder, he was on his way.
We stood at the window watching him walk down the little path toward the deep white valley. The icy wind tried to pull the long white beard from his face. Once, Santa Claus stopped and looked back. He saw our faces against the windowpanes. He waved to us and we waved to him. Then we watched him walk down the deep, white valley, until he was out of sight.
For more information on Kentuckian Jesse Stuart and his writings, contact The Jesse Stuart Foundation at P.O. Box 669, Ashland, Ky. 41105 or 1-800-504-0209, or go Jsfbooks.com.