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!"





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