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Elinore Pruitt Stewart

American Homemaker and Writer

1876-1933

"The Adventure of the Christmas Tree" from
LETTERS OF A WOMAN HOMESTEADER

Narrated by Beth Richmond

Download mp3 file: Letters of a Woman Homesteader

This file is 5.5 MB; running time is 23 minutes
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THE ADVENTURE OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

January 6, 1913.

My dear Friend,—

I have put off writing you and thanking you for your thought for us until now so that I could tell you of our very happy Christmas and our deer hunt all at once.

To begin with, Mr. Stewart and Junior have gone to Boulder to spend the winter. Clyde wanted his mother to have a chance to enjoy our boy, so, as he had to go, he took Junior with him. Then those of my dear neighbors nearest my heart decided to prevent a lonely Christmas for me, so on December 21st came Mrs. Louderer, laden with an immense plum pudding and a big "wurst," and a little later came Mrs. O'Shaughnessy on her frisky pony, Chief, her scarlet sweater making a bright bit of color against our snow-wrapped horizon. Her face and ways are just as bright and cheery as can be. When she saw Mrs. Louderer's pudding and sausage she said she had brought nothing because she had come to get something to eat herself, "and," she continued, "it is a private opinion of mine that my neighbors are so glad to see me that they are glad to feed me." Now wouldn't that little speech have made her welcome anywhere? Well, we were hilariously planning what Mrs. O'Shaughnessy called a "widdy" Christmas and getting supper, when a great stamping-off of snow proclaimed a newcomer. It was Gavotte, and we were powerfully glad to see him because the hired man was going to a dance and we knew Gavotte would contrive some unusual amusement. He had heard that Clyde was going to have a deer-drive, and didn't know that he had gone, so he had come down to join the hunt just for the fun, and was very much disappointed to find there was going to be no hunt. After supper, however, his good humor returned and he told us story after story of big hunts he had had in Canada. He worked up his own enthusiasm as well as ours, and at last proposed that we have a drive of our own for a Christmas "joy." He said he would take a station and do the shooting if one of us would do the driving. So right now I reckon I had better tell you how it is done. There are many little parks in the mountains where the deer can feed, although now most places are so deep in snow that they can't walk in it. For that reason they have trails to water and to the different feeding-grounds, and they can't get through the snow except along these paths. You see how easy it would be for a man hidden on the trail to get one of the beautiful creatures if some one coming from another direction startled them so that they came along that particular path.

So they made their plans. Mrs. O'Shaughnessy elected herself driver. Two miles away is a huge mountain called Phillipeco, and deer were said to be plentiful up there. At one time there had been a sawmill on the mountain, and there were a number of deserted cabins in which we could make ourselves comfortable. So it was planned that we go up the next morning, stay all night, have the hunt the following morning, and then come home with our game.

Well, we were all astir early the next morning and soon grain, bedding, and chuck-box were in the wagon. Then Mrs. Louderer, the kinder, and myself piled in; Mrs. O'Shaughnessy bestrode Chief, Gavotte stalked on ahead to pick our way, and we were off.

It was a long, tedious climb, and I wished over and over that I had stayed at home; but it was altogether on Baby's account. I was so afraid that he would suffer, but he kept warm as toast. The day was beautiful, and the views many times repaid us for any hardship we had suffered. It was three o'clock before we reached the old mill camp. Soon we had a roaring fire, and Gavotte made the horses comfortable in one of the cabins. They were bedded in soft, dry sawdust, and were quite as well off as if they had been in their own stalls. Then some rough planks were laid on blocks, and we had our first meal since breakfast. We called it supper, and we had potatoes roasted in the embers, Mrs. Louderer's wurst, which she had been calmly carrying around on her arm like a hoop and which was delicious with the bread that Gavotte toasted on long sticks; we had steaming coffee, and we were all happy; even Baby clapped his hands and crowed at the unusual sight of an open fire. After supper Gavotte took a little stroll and returned with a couple of grouse for our breakfast. After dark we sat around the fire eating peanuts and listening to Gavotte and Mrs. Louderer telling stories of their different great forests. But soon Gavotte took his big sleeping-bag and retired to another cabin, warning us that we must be up early. Our improvised beds were the most comfortable things; I love the flicker of an open fire, the smell of the pines, the pure, sweet air, and I went to sleep thinking how blest I was to be able to enjoy the things I love most.

It seemed only a short time until some one knocked on our door and we were all wide awake in a minute. The fire had burned down and only a soft, indistinct glow from the embers lighted the room, while through a hole in the roof I could see a star glimmering frostily. It was Gavotte at the door and he called through a crack saying he had been hearing queer noises for an hour and he was going to investigate. He had called us so that we need not be alarmed should we hear the noise and not find him. We scrambled into our clothes quickly and ran outdoors to listen.

I can never describe to you the weird beauty of a moonlight night among the pines when the snow is sparkling and gleaming, the deep silence unbroken even by the snapping of a twig. We stood shivering and straining our ears and were about to go back to bed when we heard faintly a long-drawn wail as if all the suffering and sorrow on earth were bound up in that one sound. We couldn't tell which way it came from; it seemed to vibrate through the air and chill our hearts. I had heard that panthers cried that way, but Gavotte said it was not a panther. He said the engine and saws had been moved from where we were to another spring across the cañon a mile away, where timber for sawing was more plentiful, but he supposed every one had left the mill when the water froze so they couldn't saw. He added that some one must have remained and was, perhaps, in need of help, and if we were not afraid he would leave us and go see what was wrong.

We went in, made up the fire, and sat in silence, wondering what we should see or hear next. Once or twice that agonized cry came shivering through the cold moonlight. After an age, we heard Gavotte crunching through the snow, whistling cheerily to reassure us. He had crossed the cañon to the new mill camp, where he had found two women, loggers' wives, and some children. One of the women, he said, was "so ver' seek," 't was she who was wailing so, and it was the kind of "seek" where we could be of every help and comfort.

Mrs. Louderer stayed and took care of the children while Mrs. O'Shaughnessy and I followed after Gavotte, panting and stumbling, through the snow. Gavotte said he suspected they were short of "needfuls," so he had filled his pockets with coffee and sugar, took in a bottle some of the milk I brought for Baby, and his own flask of whiskey, without which he never travels.

At last, after what seemed to me hours of scrambling through the snow, through deepest gloom where pines were thickest, and out again into patches of white moonlight, we reached the ugly clearing where the new camp stood. Gavotte escorted us to the door and then returned to our camp. Entering, we saw the poor, little soon-to-be mother huddled on her poor bed, while an older woman stood near warning her that the oil would soon be all gone and they would be in darkness. She told us that the sick one had been in pain all the day before and much of the night, and that she herself was worn completely out. So Mrs. O'Shaughnessy sent her to bed and we took charge. Secretly, I felt it all to be a big nuisance to be dragged out from my warm, comfortable bed to traipse through the snow at that time of the night. But the moment poor little Molly spoke I was glad I was living, because she was a poor little Southern girl whose husband is a Mormon. He had been sent on a mission to Alabama, and the poor girl had fallen in love with his handsome face and knew nothing of Mormonism, so she had run away with him. She thought it would be so grand to live in the glorious West with so splendid a man as she believed her husband to be. But now she believed she was going to die and she was glad of it because she could not return to her "folks," and she said she knew her husband was dead because he and the other woman's husband, both of whom had intended to stay there all winter and cut logs, had gone two weeks before to get their summer's wages and buy supplies. Neither man had come back and there was not a horse or any other way to get out of the mountains to hunt them, so they believed the men to be frozen somewhere on the road. Rather a dismal prospect, wasn't it? Molly was just longing for some little familiar thing, so I was glad I have not yet gotten rid of my Southern way of talking. No Westerner can ever understand a Southerner's need of sympathy, and, however kind their hearts, they are unable to give it. Only a Southerner can understand how dear are our peculiar words and phrases, and poor little Molly took new courage when she found I knew what she meant when she said she was just "honin'" after a friendly voice. Well, soon we had the water hot and had filled some bottles and placed them around our patient, and after a couple of hours the tiny little stranger came into the world. It had been necessary to have a great fire in order to have light, so as soon as we got Baby dressed I opened the door a little to cool the room and Molly saw the morning star twinkling merrily. "Oh," she said, "that is what I will call my little girlie,—Star, dear little Star."

It is strange, isn't it? how our spirits will revive after some great ordeal. Molly had been sure she was going to die and saw nothing to live for; now that she had had a cup of hot milk and held her red little baby close, she was just as happy and hopeful as if she had never left her best friends and home to follow the uncertain fortunes of young Will Crosby. So she and I talked of ash-hoppers, smoke-houses, cotton-patches, goobers, poke-greens, and shoats, until she fell asleep.

Soon day was abroad, and so we went outdoors for a fresh breath. The other woman came out just then to ask after Molly. She invited us into her cabin, and, oh, the little Mormons were everywhere; poor, half-clad little things! Some sour-dough biscuit and a can of condensed milk was everything they had to eat. The mother explained to us that their "men" had gone to get things for them, but had not come back, so she guessed they had got drunk and were likely in jail. She told it in a very unconcerned manner. Poor thing! Years of such experience had taught her that blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed. She said that if Molly had not been sick she would have walked down out of the mountains and got help.

Just then two shots rang out in quick succession, and soon Gavotte came staggering along with a deer across his shoulders. That he left for the family. From our camp he had brought some bacon and butter for Molly, and, poor though it may seem, it was a treat for her. Leaving the woman to dress the venison with her oldest boy's aid, we put out across the cañon for our own breakfast. Beside our much-beaten trail hung the second venison, and when we reached our camp and had our own delicious breakfast of grouse, bread, butter, and coffee, Gavotte took Chub and went for our venison. In a short time we were rolling homeward. Of course it didn't take us nearly so long to get home because it was downhill and the road was clearly marked, so in a couple of hours we were home.

Gavotte knew the two loggers were in Green River and were then at work storing ice for the railroad, but he had not known that their wives were left as they were. The men actually had got drunk, lost their money, and were then trying to replace it. After we debated a bit we decided we could not enjoy Christmas with those people in want up there in the cold. Then we got busy. It is sixty miles to town, although our nearest point to the railroad is but forty, so you see it was impossible to get to town to get anything. You should have seen us! Every old garment that had ever been left by men who have worked here was hauled out, and Mrs. O'Shaughnessy's deft fingers soon had a pile of garments cut. We kept the machine humming until far into the night, as long as we could keep our eyes open.

All next day we sewed as hard as we could, and Gavotte cooked as hard as he could. We had intended to have a tree for Jerrine, so we had a box of candles and a box of Christmas snow. Gavotte asked for all the bright paper we could find. We had lots of it, and I think you would be surprised at the possibilities of a little waste paper. He made gorgeous birds, butterflies, and flowers out of paper that once wrapped parcels. Then he asked us for some silk thread, but I had none, so he told us to comb our hair and give him the combings. We did, and with a drop of mucilage he would fasten a hair to a bird's back and then hold it up by the hair. At a few feet's distance it looked exactly as though the bird was flying. I was glad I had a big stone jar full of fondant, because we had a lot of fun shaping and coloring candies. We had two dozen chocolate-covered things that might have been anything from a monkey to a mouse. Mrs. Louderer cut up her big plum pudding and put it into a dozen small bags. These Gavotte carefully covered with green paper. Then we tore up the holly wreath that Aunt Mary sent me, and put a sprig in the top of each green bag of pudding. I never had so much fun in my life as I had preparing for that Christmas.

At ten o'clock, the morning of the 24th, we were again on our way up the mountain-side. We took shovels so we could clear a road if need be. We had dinner at the old camp, and then Gavotte hunted us a way out to the new, and we smuggled our things into Molly's cabin so the children should have a real surprise. Poor, hopeless little things! Theirs was, indeed, a dull outlook.

Gavotte busied himself in preparing one of the empty cabins for us and in making the horses comfortable. He cut some pine boughs to do that with, and so they paid no attention when he cut a small tree. In the mean time we had cleared everything from Molly's cabin but her bed; we wanted her to see the fun. The children were sent to the spring to water the horses and they were all allowed to ride, so that took them out of the way while Gavotte nailed the tree into a box he had filled with dirt to hold it steady.

There were four women of us, and Gavotte, so it was only the work of a few moments to get the tree ready, and it was the most beautiful one I ever saw. Your largest bell, dear Mrs. Coney, dangled from the topmost branch. Gavotte had attached a long, stout wire to your Santa Claus, so he was able to make him dance frantically without seeming to do so. The hairs that held the birds and butterflies could not be seen, and the effect was beautiful. We had a bucket of apples rubbed bright, and these we fastened to the tree just as they grew on their own branches. The puddings looked pretty, too, and we had done up the parcels that held the clothes as attractively as we could. We saved the candy and the peanuts to put in their little stockings.

As soon as it was dark we lighted the candles and then their mother called the children. Oh, if you could have seen them! It was the very first Christmas tree they had ever seen and they didn't know what to do. The very first present Gavotte handed out was a pair of trousers for eight-years-old Brig, but he just stood and stared at the tree until his brother next in size, with an eye to the main chance, got behind him and pushed him forward, all the time exclaiming, "Go on, can't you! They ain't doin' nothin' to you, they's just doin' somethin' for you." Still Brig would not put out his hand. He just shook his tousled sandy head and said he wanted a bird. So the fun kept up for an hour. Santa had for Molly a package of oatmeal, a pound of butter, a Mason jar of cream, and a dozen eggs, so that she could have suitable food to eat until something could be done.

After the presents had all been distributed we put the phonograph on a box and had a dandy concert. We played "There were Shepherds," "Ave Maria," and "Sweet Christmas Bells." Only we older people cared for those, so then we had "Arrah Wanna," "Silver Bells," "Rainbow," "Red Wing," and such songs. How delighted they were! Our concert lasted two hours, and by that time the little fellows were so sleepy that the excitement no longer affected them and they were put to bed, but they hung up their stockings first, and even Molly hung hers up too. We filled them with peanuts and candy, putting the lion's share into Molly's stocking.

Next morning the happiness broke out in new spots. The children were all clean and warm, though I am afraid I can't brag on the fit of all the clothes. But the pride of the wearers did away with the necessity of a fit. The mother was radiantly thankful for a warm petticoat; that it was made of a blanket too small for a bed didn't bother her, and the stripes were around the bottom anyway. Molly openly rejoiced in her new gown, and that it was made of ugly gray outing flannel she didn't know nor care. Baby Star Crosby looked perfectly sweet in her little new clothes, and her little gown had blue sleeves and they thought a white skirt only added to its beauty. And so it was about everything. We all got so much out of so little. I will never again allow even the smallest thing to go to waste. We were every one just as happy as we could be, almost as delighted as Molly was, and there was very little given that had not been thrown away or was not just odds and ends.

There was never anything more true than that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We certainly had a delicious dinner too, and we let Molly have all she wanted that we dared allow her to eat. The roast venison was so good that we were tempted to let her taste it, but we thought better of that. As soon as dinner was over we packed our belongings and betook ourselves homeward.

It was just dusk when we reached home. Away off on a bare hill a wolf barked. A big owl hooted lonesomely among the pines, and soon a pack of yelping coyotes went scampering across the frozen waste.

It was not the Christmas I had in mind when I sent the card, but it was a dandy one, just the same.

With best wishes for you for a happy, happy New Year,

Sincerely your friend,

Elinore Rupert Stewart.

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