The Christmas Rifle

Christmas Memorabilia

I didn’t write this, but I wish I had!

The Christmas Rifle

Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or for
those who squandered
their means and then never had enough for the
necessities. But for
those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big
as all outdoors.

It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life
comes from
giving, not from receiving. 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. We did the chores early that night
for
some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we
could
read in the Bible.

So after supper was over, I took my boots off
and stretched out in
front of the fireplace, waiting for Pa to get down the
old Bible. I
was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn’t
in much
of a mood to read Scriptures. But Pa didn’t get the Bible; instead
he
bundled up again and went outside. I couldn’t figure it out because
we
had already done all the chores. I didn’t worry about it long though;
I
was too busy wallowing in self-pity.

Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold
clear night out and there was ice
in his beard “Come on, Matt,” he said.
“Bundle up good, it’s cold out
tonight.” I was really upset then. Not only
wasn’t I getting the rifle
for Christmas, but, now Pa was dragging me out in
the cold, and for no
earthly reason that I could see. We’d already done all
the chores, and
I couldn’t think of anything else that needed doing,
especially not on
a night like this.

But I knew Pa was not very
patient at one dragging one’s feet when
he’d told them to do something, so I
got up, put my boots back on, and
got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a
mysterious smile as I
opened the door to leave the house. Something was up,
but I didn’t
know what.

Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in
front of the house was
the work team, already hitched to the big sled.
Whatever it was we
were going to do wasn’t going to be a short or quick or
little job, I
could tell. We never hitched up this sled unless we were going
to haul
a big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand.
I
reluctantly climbed up beside him.

The cold was already biting at
me, and I wasn’t happy. When I was on,
Pa pulled the sled around the house
and stopped in front of the
woodshed. He got off and I followed. “I think
we’ll put on the high
sideboards,” he said. “Here, help me.” The high
sideboards! It had
been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low
sideboards on,
but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger
with the
high sideboards on.

After we had exchanged the sideboards, Pa
went into the woodshed and
came out with an armload of wood – the wood I’d
spent all summer
hauling down from the mountain and all fall sawing into
blocks and
splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said
something.

“Pa,” I asked, “what are you doing?”

“You been by the
Widow Jensen’s lately?” he asked. The Widow Jensen
lived about two miles down
the road. Her husband had died a year or so
before and left her with three
children, the oldest being eight. Sure,
I’d been by, but so what? “Yeah,” I
said, “Why?” “I rode by just
today,” Pa said. “Little Jakey was out digging
around in the woodpile
trying to find a few chips. They’re out of wood,
Matt.” That was all
he said.

He then turned and 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. Finally,
Pa called a
halt to our loading and went to the smokehouse where he 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.
Little Jakey
just had gunnysacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in
the
woodpile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It
just
wouldn’t be Christmas without a little candy.

“We rode the two
miles to Widow Jensen’s pretty much in silence. I
tried to think through what
Pa was doing. We didn’t have much by
worldly standards. Of course, we did
have a big woodpile, though most
of what was left now was still in the form
of logs that I would have
to saw into blocks and split before we could use
it. We also had meat
and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn’t
have any
money, so why was Pa 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, unloaded the wood
as quietly as possible, and took the meat
and flour and shoes around
to the front door. We knocked. The door opened a
crack and a timid
voice said, “Who is it?” “Lucas Miles, Ma’am, and my son,
Matt. Could
we come in for a bit?” Widow Jensen opened the door and let us
in. She
had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were
wrapped
in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very
small
fire that hardly gave off any heat at all.

Widow Jensen fumbled
with a match and finally lit the lamp. “We
brought you a few things, Ma’am,”
Pa said and set down the sack of
flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa
handed her the sack that
had the 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 – sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last. I
watched
her carefully. 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 Pa like she wanted to say something, but it
wouldn’t
come out. “We brought a load of wood too, Ma’am,” Pa said. He
turned
to me and said, “Matt, go bring in enough to last awhile. Let’s
get
that fire up to size 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, as much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my
eyes,
too. In my mind, I kept seeing those three kids huddled around
the fireplace
and their mother standing there with tears running down
her cheeks with so
much gratitude in her heart that she couldn’t speak.

My heart swelled
within me and a joy that I’d never known before
filled my soul. I had given
at Christmas many times before, but never
when it had made so much
difference. I could see we were literally
saving the lives of these people. I
soon had the fire blazing and
everyone’s spirits soared. The kids started
giggling when Pa 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.

She finally turned to us. “God bless you,” she said. “The children
and
I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare
us.”
In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the
tears
welled up in my eyes again. I’d never thought of Pa in those
exact
terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it, I could see that
it
was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had
never
walked the earth.

I started remembering all the times he had
gone out of his way for Ma
and me, and many others. The list seemed endless
as I thought on it.
Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we
left. I was
amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what
sizes to
get. Tears were running down Widow Jensen’s face again when we
stood
up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them
a
hug. They clung to him and didn’t want us to go.

I could see that
they missed their pa, and I was glad that I still had
mine. At the door, Pa
turned to Widow Jensen and said, “The Mrs.
wanted me to invite you and the
children over for Christmas dinner
tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the
three of us can eat, and a
man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey
for too many meals.
We’ll be by to get you about eleven. It’ll be nice to
have some little
ones around again. Matt, here, hasn’t been little for quite
a spell.”
I was the youngest. My two brothers and two sisters had all
married
and had moved away. Widow Jensen nodded and said, “Thank you”. Out
on
the sled, I felt warmth that came from deep within and I didn’t
even
notice the cold.

When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and
said, “Matt, I want you
to know something. Your ma and me 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 ma
and
me 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. Son, I
spent your rifle money for
shoes and a little candy for those
children. I hope you understand.” I
understood, and my eyes became wet
with tears again. I understood very well,
and I was so glad Pa had
done it.

Now the rifle seemed very low on my
list of priorities. Pa had given
me a lot more. He had given me the look on
Widow Jensen’s face and the
radiant smiles of her three children. For the
rest of my life,
whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood,
I
remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt
riding
home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle
that
night; he had given me the best Christmas of my life.

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