Caught in the Spirit, 2013 Second Place Winner’s Circle
By Bruce Bash
“Kevin! Get away from that hard cider!”
The deep raspy words shattered my thoughts like a gunshot. I sucked in a breath, tipped the tin cup, and felt the amber liquid slide down my throat burnin’ like molten lava. When I spun around I saw our school teacher lumberin’ in my direction like an angry grizzly bear. Fortunately, Mr. Adler’s massive size got in the way of his agility. With a running start I slid through his legs and shimmied up a rope danglin’ from a beam in the back of the barn to the safety of the open rafters.
From my perch above the dance floor, I watched the merrymaking below. Seemed ‘bout every family in the county had made the trip to Clyde, Idaho to enjoy the Little Lost River Valley’s Christmas celebration, 1935. Lined-up tables along the north wall overflowed with fried chicken, ham, spuds, and every baked good a person could imagine. It appeared this was the one day of the year hard-workin’ folks could get together and kick up their heels to forget about life’s struggles for a while.
By 6:00 p.m. the wooden floor boards rumbled with the stompin’ of scores of feet. Ol’ Zeke’s fiddle sang sweet as a canary as folks swung to the Virginia Reel and favorite square dances. Some of the older boys spent a good deal of time chasin’ after girls, tryin’ to steal a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe hangin’ from a popcorn wreath. The warm air inside stirred with the sweet smell of hay bales, fresh-cut pine and mouth-waterin’ treats. But outside I could hear the north wind gainin’ strength and roarin’ like an overdue freight train. Snow plastered the windows and piled up around the building faster than anyone could shovel it away.
I had just about worked up enough courage to slide back down the rope, hopin’ Mr. Adler had lost interest in my whereabouts, when I saw a young girl standin’ by the front door. She looked to be five or six at the most and all she was wearin’ was a thin cotton dress, a faded yellow sweater, and a pair of worn work boots at least five sizes too big. I guess Ol’ Zeke saw her too, ‘cause with a loud screech his fiddle fell silent. The dancin’ soon stopped and a whole roomful of curious eyes stared at the fragile child with the curly black hair.
My feet hit the floor with a thud and I wiggled through the crowd in time to see Jack Carey, the town’s Mayor, walk over to the young lass and drop down to one knee.
“Hey there, darlin’. What’s your name? Where’re your folks?”
Jack acted like he was almost ‘fraid to touch our tiny visitor for fear she might shatter like hand blown glass.
The little girl stopped suckin’ on her bottom lip, wrapped her hands around her arms in a tight hug, and looked at Jack with pleadin’ dark eyes.
“Andy’s lost,” she said, her tiny voice quiverin’ from fear and cold.
“What’d she say?” someone asked from the back.
“A feller’s lost,” another answered.
A low murmur spread through the crowd.
“We’ll need a search party,” said a tall burly man I didn’t know.
Jack leaned closer to the young child and took her hand.
“Who’s Andy, darlin’? Is he your brother? Your Pa?”
The girl’s eyes filled with tears. Tremblin’ hands covered her mouth. About then I recognized who she was so I slipped up close behind Jack and tapped him on the back.
“Mayor, I think this here’s Leya Sanchez. She and her Pa moved into that old miner’s shack over by the Diamond Peak trail a short time back.”
“Then who’s Andy?” he asked.
“I-I think Andy’s her Border Collie, Mayor.”
Just hearin’ about Leya’s lost dog made me remember how I’d felt the summer ol’ Rusty got tangled up with a badger. Rusty’d been missin’ most of a day before Pa and I found him down by the south pasture. His body was mangled somethin’ terrible.
“A dog?” bellowed Ed Pearson’s sandpaper voice. “The little girl’s talking about a lost dog.”
“Well, we ain’t going out in a storm to find some no-account animal,” said Nathan Pearson, Ed’s younger brother.
“On with the dancing,” someone yelled. “Get that fiddle to humming, Zeke.”
Voices rose again and folks started shufflin’ back toward the dance floor and food tables. I saw a wave of panic flood Leya’s face. Here was a whole room full of people and it looked as if not one of ‘em was gonna help find her dog. A lump big as a baseball caught in my throat.
Jack turned and looked at me, head tilted to one side and his eyes all squinted.
“I reckon that dog’s about all Leya has to remind her of Christmas. I saw her Pa hobblin’ around on a forked willow crutch about a week ago when I was over their way huntin’ rabbits. I don’t think she has a Ma.”
The lines in the mayor’s forehead deepened. I could almost see thoughts tossin’ ‘round in his head. All at once he reached down and swung Leya onto his shoulder. Then he stepped up on a rickety wooden crate and cleared his throat.
“Folks, could I have your attention?” The clamor in the barn quieted some, but Jack still had to shout to be heard above the buzz. “Folks, this little girl here is Leya. She says her dog is lost and needs some help to find him.”
“Mayor, this is the valley’s Christmas party,” Frank Stevens called out. “You don’t ‘spect us to leave the party and go out in a dang blizzard to look for some mutt, do you?”
“Frank’s right,” hollered Kyle Summers. “The storm’s getting stronger. A man would be a fool to go out in that weather.”
I know nine-year-old boys aren’t supposed to cry, but when no one stepped forward to help my eyes started to mist over like a hot window cooled by a summer thunderstorm. Just then I felt a firm hand grip my arm. I looked up and saw Pa standin’ there lookin’ tall as Paul Bunyon against the dark barn rafters.
“I’ll help you look for the dog, Mayor,” Pa called out. His eyes fell on me soft and warm. “We’d do the same if Rusty was lost, wouldn’t we son?”
“Tom, are you crazy?” That’s a blizzard howlin’ out there. And it’s pitch dark.” Mr. Loosli shook his head. “How would you find a dog in all that snow?”
“Don’t know if I will, Sam,” Pa told him. “But this little girl isn’t going to have much of a Christmas unless she gets her dog back.”
By now the hall had quieted down to a whisper. Folks were watchin’ and strainin’ to hear every word bein’ said. Pa stepped over toward the Mayor and brushed Leya’s hair from her forehead. “If anyone needs a breath of fresh air, he’s sure welcome to come along.”
There was a lot of mumblin’, cursin’, and shakin’ of heads. Then a half-dozen men stepped forward and grabbed their coats and hats from long nails pounded in the log wall.
Pa smiled and nodded. “Thanks Elwood, Seth.”
Before I knew what was happenin’, at least twenty others went for their coats. “Might as well go too,” Ed Mays complained as he walked past. “Clara won’t never let me hear the end of it unless I go along.”
While the men made plans for the search, two women took Leya off the Mayor’s shoulder. They wrapped her in a thick afghan and pushed through the crowd. I saw Leya’s eyes grow round as saucers as they carried her toward the food tables.
“We’ll search until 8:00 then everyone is to meet back here,” Pa said. “We sure don’t want to have to go looking for anyone else out there tonight.”
I grabbed my coat to go along, but when I looked up I caught Pa’s eye and he shook his head. His pencil-thin smile was proud, but firm. And I knew better than to complain.
Snow swirled inside like a miniature tornado when the men charged out into the night and the freezing cold. I ran to the window to watch ‘em go, but all I could see were a dozen faint globs of lantern light disappearin’ into a million streaks of white.
The next hour dragged by slower than two snails racin’ ‘cross a porch step. Talk was low and muffled, the music silent. Everyone kept watchin’ the door, waitin’ for the menfolk to return.
Just before 8:00, Jim and Bob Perry stumbled into the hall, their beards frozen stiff and white. They looked at the sea of faces starin’ at ‘em, shook their heads, and headed for one of the wood stoves and some hot coffee. Next in came Mr. Appleton and Mr. Murry. Still nothin’. I watched Leya’s face. Each time a man staggered in her eyes would light up. Then the sadness would return when she realized her Andy hadn’t been found yet.
By 8:15 only two men hadn’t come back: the mayor and my pa. I could hear the wind screamin’, tearin’ at the roof as if tryin’ to find a way in. The minutes ticked away: 8:20, 8:25.
At 8:30 Mr. Latham jumped up and grabbed his coat fixin’ to brave the storm once again. But he’d no more than pulled on his gloves when the door burst open and there was my pa carryin’ a half-frozen, snow-caked blob of fur. It was Andy.
Leya dropped from the picnic bench and raced toward her beloved dog, the afghan draggin’ behind her like a cape. A mighty cheer echoed off the rafters. I ran over to Pa and threw my arms around his waist. The ice frozen to his coat felt like fire against my cheek.
“He got himself caught in a coyote trap over by Wet Creek,” I heard Pa explain to some folks crowded round.
A moment later the door banged open again and the mayor stepped inside followed by a smaller man wearin’ a torn coat and battered felt hat. The man hobbled along on a single crutch.
“Papa,” Leya cried, runnin’ toward the stranger. The man dropped his crutch, crouched down and embraced his daughter in a giant bear hug. When they finally parted his cheeks glistened wet with gratitude. I saw his mouth open to speak, but his words seemed to catch on his tongue. That’s when Pa walked over and shook his hand.
“Merry Christmas, Miguel. Merry Christmas.”
I never saw such a neighborly outpourin’ like there was for Leya and her Pa. Maybe folks got caught up in the spirit of givin’; maybe it was somethin’ deeper. All I know is Ol’ Doc promised to take a look at Mr. Sanchez’s leg, Mr. Conrad offered him a job helpin’ with his sheep lambin’, and the next day the food, clothes, and household goods that showed up at the Sanchez cabin would have been enough to fill a stable bottom to top.
Guess folks carin’ and sharin’ with one another is what Christmas is all about. Seems in spite of all the years that have passed, all the hard times and sufferin’ in the world, Christmas means as much today as it did nearly 2000 years ago. And to think, it all started in a stable.