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The Greatest Of These






JOSEPH MILLS HANSON


THE outside door swung open suddenly, letting a cloud of steam into the
small, hot kitchen. Charlie Moore, a milk pail in one hand, a lantern in
the other, closed the door behind him with a bang, set the pail on the
table and stamped the snow from his feet.

"There's the milk, and I near froze gettin' it," said he, addressing his
partner, who was chopping potatoes in a pan on the stove.

"Dose vried bodadoes vas burnt," said the other, wielding his knife
vigorously.

"Are, eh? Why didn't you watch 'em instead of readin' your old
Scandinavian paper?" answered Charlie, hanging his overcoat and cap
behind the door and laying his mittens under the stove to dry. Then he
drew up a chair and with much exertion pulled off his heavy felt boots
and stood them beside his mittens.

"Why didn't you shut the gate after you came in from town? The cows got
out and went up to Roney's an' I had to chase 'em; 'tain't any joke
runnin' round after cows such a night as this." Having relieved his mind
of its grievance, Charlie sat down before the oven door, and, opening
it, laid a stick of wood along its outer edge and thrust his feet into
the hot interior, propping his heels against the stick.

"Look oud for dese har biscuits!" exclaimed his partner, anxiously.

"Oh, hang the biscuits!" was Charlie's hasty answer. "I'll watch 'em.
Why didn't you?"

"Ay tank Ay fergit hem."

"Well, you don't want to forget. A feller forgot his clothes once, an'
he got froze."

"Ay gass dose faller vas ketch in a sbring snowstorm. Vas dose biscuits
done, Sharlie?"

"You bet they are, Nels," replied Charlie, looking into the pan.

"Dan subbar vas ready. Yom on!"

Nels picked up the frying-pan and Charlie the biscuits, and set them on
the oilcloth-covered table, where a plate of butter, a jar of plum
jelly, and a coffee-pot were already standing.

Outside the frozen kitchen window the snow-covered fields and meadows
stretched, glistening and silent, away to the dark belt of timber by the
river. Along the deep-rutted road in front a belated lumber-wagon passed
slowly, the wheels crunching through the packed snow with a wavering,
incessant shriek.

The two men hitched their chairs up to the table, and without ceremony
helped themselves liberally to the steaming food. For a few moments they
seemed oblivious to everything but the demands of hunger. The potatoes
and biscuits disappeared with surprising rapidity, washed down by large
drafts of coffee. These men, labouring steadily through the short
daylight hours in the dry, cold air of the Dakota winter, were like
engines whose fires had burned low--they were taking fuel. Presently,
the first keen edge of appetite satisfied, they ate more slowly, and
Nels, straightening up with a sigh, spoke:

"Ay seen Seigert in town ta-day. Ha vants von hundred fifty fer dose
team."

"Come down, eh?" commented Charlie. "Well, they're worth that. We'd
better take 'em, Nels. We'll need 'em in the spring if we break the
north forty."

"Yas, et's a nice team," agreed Nels. "Ha vas driven ham ta-day."

"Is he haulin' corn?"

"Na; he had his kids oop gettin' Christmas bresents."

"Chris--By gracious! to-morrow's Christmas!"

Nels nodded solemnly, as one possessing superior knowledge. Charlie
became thoughtful.

"We'll come in sort of slim on it here, I reckon, Nels. Christmas ain't
right, somehow, out here. Back in Wisconsin, where I came from, there's
where you get your Christmas!" Charlie spoke with the unswerving
prejudice of mankind for the land of his birth.

"Yas, dose been right. En da ol' kontry dey havin' gret times
Christmas."

Their thoughts were all bent now upon the holiday scenes of the past. As
they finished the meal and cleared away and washed the dishes they
related incidents of their boyhood's time, compared, reiterated, and
embellished. As they talked they grew jovial, and laughed often.

"The skee broke an' you went over kerplunk, hey? Haw, haw! That reminds
me of one time in Wisconsin----"

Something of the joyous spirit of the Christmastide seemed to have
entered into this little farmhouse set in the midst of the lonely, white
fields. In the hearts of these men, moving about in their dim-lighted
room, was reechoed the joyous murmur of the great world without: the
gayety of the throngs in city streets, where the brilliant shop-windows,
rich with holiday spoils, smile out upon the passing crowd, and the
clang of street-cars and roar of traffic mingle with the cries of
street-venders. The work finished, they drew their chairs to the stove,
and filled their pipes, still talking.

"Well, well," said Charlie, after the laugh occasioned by one of Nels'
droll stories had subsided. "It's nice to think of those old times. I'd
hate to have been one of these kids that can't have any fun, Christmas
or any other time."

"Ay gass dere ain't anybody much dot don'd have someding dis tams a
year."

"Oh, yes, there are, Nels! You bet there are!" Charlie nodded at his
partner with serious conviction. "Now, there's the Roneys," he waved his
pipe over his shoulder. "The old man told me to-night when I was up
after the cows that he's sold all the crops except what they need for
feedin'--wheat, and corn, and everything, and some hogs besides--and
ain't got hardly enough now for feed and clothes for all that family.
The rent and the lumber he had to buy to build the new barn after the
old one burnt ate up the money like fury. He kind of laughed, and said
he guessed the children wouldn't get much Christmas this year. I didn't
think about it's being so close when he told me."

"No Christmas!" Nels' round eyes widened with astonishment. "Ay tank
dose been pooty bad!" He studied the subject for a few moments, his
stolid face suddenly grown thoughtful. Charlie stared at the stove. Far
away by the river a lonely coyote set up his quick, howling yelp.

"Dere's been seven kids oop dere," said Nels at last, glancing up as if
for corroboration.

"Yes, seven," agreed Charlie.

"Say, do ve need Seigert's team very pad?"

"Well, now that depends," said Charlie. "Why not?"

"Nothin', only Ay vas tankin' ve might tak' some a das veat we vas goin'
to sell and--and----"

"Yep, what?"

"And dumb it on Roney's granary floor to-night after dere been asleeb."

Charlie stared at his companion for a moment in silence. Then he rose,
and, approaching Nels, examined his partner's face with solemn scrutiny.

"By the great horn spoon," he announced, finally, "you've got a head on
you like a balloon, my boy! Keep on gettin' ideas like that, and you'll
land in Congress or the poor-farm before many years!"

Then, abandoning his pretense of gravity, he slapped the other on the
back.

"Why didn't I think of that? It's the best yet. Seigert's team? Oh, hang
Seigert's team. We don't need it. We'll have a little merry Christmas
out of this yet. Only they mustn't know where it came from. I'll write a
note and stick it under the door, 'You'll find some merry wheat----' No,
that ain't it. 'You'll find some wheat in the granary to give the kids a
merry Christmas with,' signed, 'Santa Claus.'"

He wrote out the message in the air with a pointing forefinger. He had
entered into the spirit of the thing eagerly.

"It's half-past nine now," he went on, looking at the clock. "It'll be
eleven time we get the stuff loaded and hauled up there. Let's go out
and get at it. Lucky the bobs are on the wagon; they don't make such a
racket as wheels."

He took the lantern from its nail behind the door and lighted it, after
which he put on his boots, cap, and mittens, and flung his overcoat
across his shoulders. Nels, meanwhile, had put on his outer garments,
also.

"Shut up the stove, Nels." Charlie blew out the light and opened the
door. "There, hang it!" he exclaimed, turning back. "I forgot the note.
Ought to be in ink, I suppose. Well, never mind now; we won't put on any
style about it."

He took down a pencil from the shelf, and, extracting a bit of wrapping
paper from a bundle behind the wood-box, wrote the note by the light of
the lantern.

"There, I guess that will do," he said, finally. "Come on!"

Outside, the night air was cold and bracing, and in the black vault of
the sky the winter constellations flashed and throbbed. The shadows of
the two men, thrown by the lantern, bobbed huge and grotesque across the
snow and among the bare branches of the cottonwoods, as they moved
toward the barn.

"Ay tank ve put on dose extra side poards and make her an even fifty
pushel," said Nels, after they had backed the wagon up to the granary
door. "Ve might as vell do it oop right, skence ve're at it."

Having carried out this suggestion, the two shovelled steadily, with
short intervals of rest, for three quarters of an hour, the dark pile of
grain in the wagon-box rising gradually until it stood flush with the
top.

Good it was to look upon, cold and soft and yielding to the touch, this
heaped-up wealth from the inexhaustible treasure-house of the mighty
West. Charlie and Nels felt something of this as they viewed the results
of their labours for a moment before hitching up the team.

"It's A number one hard," said Charlie, picking up a handful and sifting
it slowly through his fingers, "and it'll fetch seventy-four cents. But
you can't raise any worse on this old farm of ours if you try," he
added, a little proudly. "Nor anywhere else in the Jim River Valley, for
that matter."

As they approached the Roney place, looking dim and indistinct in the
darkness, their voices hushed apprehensively, and the noise of the
sled-runners slipping through the snow seemed to them to increase from a
purr to a roar.

"Here, stob a minute!" whispered Nels, in agony of discovery. "Ve're
magin' an awful noise. Ay'll go und take a beek."

He slipped away and cautiously approached the house. "Et's all right,"
he whispered, hoarsely, returning after a moment; "dere all asleeb. But
go easy; Ay tank ve pest go easy." They seemed burdened all at once with
the consciences of criminals, and went forward with almost guilty
timidity.

"Thunder, dere's a bump! Vy don'd you drive garefuller, Sharlie?"

"Drive yourself, if you think you can do any better!"

As they came into the yard a dog suddenly ran out from the barn,
barking furiously. Charlie reined up with an ejaculation of despair;
"Look there, the dog! We're done for now, sure! Stop him, Nels! Throw
somethin' at 'im!"

The noise seemed to their excited ears louder than the crash of
artillery. Nels threw a piece of snow crust. The dog ran back a few
steps, but his barking did not diminish.

"Here, hold the lines. I'll try to catch 'im." Charlie jumped from the
wagon and approached the dog with coaxing words: "Come, doggie, good
doggie, nice boy, come!"

His manoeuvre, however, merely served to increase the animal's frenzy.
As Charlie approached the dog retired slowly toward the house, his head
thrown back, and his rapid barking increased to a long-drawn howl.

"Good boy, come! Bother the brute! He'll wake up the whole household!
Nice doggie! Phe-e----"

The noise, however, had no apparent effect upon the occupants of the
house. All remained as dark and silent as ever.

"Sharlie, Sharlie, let him go!" cried Nels, in a voice smothered with
laughter. "Ay go in dose parn; maype ha'll chase me."

His hope was well founded. The dog, observing this treacherous
occupation by the enemy of his last harbour of refuge, gave pursuit and
disappeared within the door, which Charlie, hard behind him, closed
with a bang. There was the sound of a hurried scuffle within. The dog's
barking gave place to terrified whinings, which in turn were suddenly
quenched to a choking murmur.

"Gome in, Sharlie, kvick!"

"You got him?" queried Charlie, opening the door cautiously. "Did he
bite you?"

"Na, yust ma mitten. Gat a sack or someding da die him oop in."

A sack was procured from somewhere, into which the dog, now silenced
from sheer exhaustion and fright, was unceremoniously thrust, after
which the sack was tied and flung into the wagon. This formidable
obstacle overcome and the Roneys still slumbering peacefully, the rest
was easy. The granary door was pried open and the wheat shovelled
hurriedly in upon the empty floor. Charlie then crept up to the house
and slipped his note under the door.

The sack was lifted from the now empty wagon and opened before the barn,
whereupon its occupant slipped meekly out and retreated at once to a far
corner, seemingly too much incensed at his discourteous treatment even
to fling a volley of farewell barks at his departing captors.

"Vell," remarked Nels, with a sigh of relief as they gained the road,
"Ay tank dose Roneys pelieve en Santa Claus now. Dose peen funny vay fer
Santa Claus to coom."

Charlie's laugh was good to hear. "He didn't exactly come down the
chimney, that's a fact, but it'll do at a pinch. We ought to have told
them to get a present for the dog--collar and chain. I reckon he
wouldn't hardly be thankful for it, though, eh?"

"Ay gass not. Ha liges ta haf hes nights ta hemself."

"Well, we had our fun, anyway. Sort of puts me in mind of old Wisconsin,
somehow."

From far off over the valley, with its dismantled cornfields and
snow-covered haystacks, beyond the ice-bound river, floated slow, and
sonorous, the mellow clanging of church bells. They were ushering in the
Christmas morn.

Overhead the starlit heavens glistened, brooding and mysterious, looking
down with luminous, loving eyes upon these humble sons of men doing a
good deed, from the impulse of simple, generous hearts, as upon that
other Christmas morning, long ago, when the Jewish shepherds, guarding
their flocks by night, read in their shining depths that in Bethlehem of
Judea the Christ-Child was born.

The rising sun was touching the higher hilltops with a faint rush of
crimson the next morning when the back door of the Roney house opened
with a creak, and Mr. Roney, still heavy-eyed with sleep, stumbled out
upon the porch, stretched his arms above his head, yawned, blinked at
the dazzling snow, and then shambled off toward the barn.

As he approached, the dog ran eagerly out, gambolled meekly around his
feet and caressed his boots. The man patted him kindly.

"Hello, old boy! What were you yappin' around so for last night, huh?
Grain-thieves? You needn't worry about them. There ain't nothin' left
for them to steal. No, sir! If they got into that granary they'd have to
take a lantern along to find a pint of wheat. I don't suppose," he
added, reflectively, "that I could scrape up enough to feed the chickens
this mornin', but I guess I might's well see."

He passed over to the little building. What he saw when he looked within
seemed for a moment to produce no impression upon him whatever. He
stared at the hillock of grain in motionless silence.

Finally Mr. Roney gave utterance to a single word, "Geewhilikins!" and
started for the house on a run. Into the kitchen, where his wife was
just starting the fire, the excited man burst like a whirlwind.

"Come out here, Mary!" he cried. "Come out here, quick!"

The worthy woman, unaccustomed to such demonstrations, looked at him in
amazement.

"For goodness sake, what's come over you, Peter Roney?" she exclaimed.
"Are you daft? Don't make such a noise! You'll wake the young ones, and
I don't want them waked till need be, with no Christmas for 'em, poor
little things!"

"Never mind the young 'uns," he replied. "Come on!"

As they passed out he noticed the slip of paper under the door and
picked it up, but without comment. He charged down upon the granary, his
wife, with a shawl over her head, close behind.

She peered in, apprehensively at first, then with eyes of widening
wonder.

"Why, Peter!" she said, turning to him. "Why, Peter! What does--I
thought----"

"You thought!" he broke in. "Me, too. But it ain't so. It means that
we've got some of the best neighbours that ever was, a thinkin' of our
young 'uns this way! Read that!" and he thrust the paper into her hand.

"Why, Peter!" she ejaculated again, weakly. Then suddenly she turned,
and laying her head on his shoulder, began to sob softly.

"There, there," he said, patting her arm awkwardly. "Don't you go and
cry now. Let's just be thankful to the good Lord for puttin' such
fellers into the world as them fellers down the road. And now you run in
and hurry up breakfast while I do up the chores. Then we'll hitch up and
get into town 'fore the stores close. Tell the young 'uns Santy didn't
get round last night with their things, but we've got word to meet him
in town. Hey? Yes, I saw just the kind of sled Pete wants when I was up
yesterday, and that china doll for Mollie. Yes, tell 'em anything you
want. 'Twon't be too big. Santy Claus has come to Roney's ranch this
year, sure!"





Next: Little Gretchen And The Wooden Shoe

Previous: A Christmas Fairy



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