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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
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. "I know the Lord has sent you. The children
and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us."

Inspite 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. Then I guessed
that if he was on an errand for the Lord, the Lord would make sure he got
the right sizes.

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, Brother Miles. I
don't have to say, "'May the Lord bless you.' I know for certain that He will."

Out on the sled, I felt a 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 the 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.

God Bless you one and all.