Sixty Second Parent shares Part III of this Christmas short story written by Dr. Huff. Previously, Nathan, a young boy living in rural West Virginia, and his dog Jack struggle to make it home through a winter storm to find an unwelcome guest. 

This story, written in five parts, will be posted each week until Christmas Eve. Share this poignant story about a resilient boy as a part of your holiday celebration this year.

Part III

For now at least, the storm was gone. Streamers of clouds, wispy and strung out, fled across the sky, their form just visible in the light from a pale half moon. Sheltered from the quick stabs of wind that blew snow in whirls and sheets so that it seemed alive, Nathan paused to look and to think. Before him lay the valley and the graceful meandering curves of Dewberry Creek, which sparkled and shimmered in the distant winter light. Now silver, then a touch of cold blue, and finally black, it became lost in shadows as the clouds ran their fitful course. Watching, Nathan drew a deep breath; this was when he loved the valley most, a time that seemed like a story with pictures drawn just to please him. Possibly, just possibly, the creek and its valley were enchanted. If he could hold that picture to mind long enough, then it could be forever.

“Lige! I hate you, Lige!”

Suddenly the name sprang to his lips and he screamed it into the valley. But the valley was not enchanted, and it made no reply as his words were stolen by the wind and his thoughts forced to face the struggle that no amount of magic could prevent.

He remembered the day Lige had come to Dewberry Creek. Months ago it had been, in the spring, when he and Will Hardison had been catching tadpoles in a tiny backwater pool just off the creek.

“Who is it?”

Will had jumped first as the shadow of a figure fell across them both. He was big, and from their vantage point, very tall. Even with the sun in their eyes, they could see the bushy beard that spread, red and brown, across his face and into the open collar of his shirt. He stopped in answer to Will’s question.

“This place have a name?”

“Yep. Dewberry Creek. Some mornings, least it was before the coal mines come, this creek was clean and clear like dew on blackberries just when the sun comes up. That’s why it got its name. Where’d you come from?”

The stranger laughed a response to Will’s explanation and question. His blue eyes flashed, maybe even like the sun on dew-soaked berries, and the skin around them crinkled and winked. He spoke again.  

“Name’s Lige. Actually Elijah. McIntosh. Friends call me Lige. Guess I’ll be around a while.”

Without another word he moved on up the road along the creek, toward the company store.

“Big, ain’t he?” Will spit expertly between the gaps in his upper front teeth and turned his attention once again to the tadpoles. Nathan did not answer. He watched Lige until the man disappeared from sight, and wondered how it could be that any one person was so happy that his eyes actually glowed.

“Sours my milk, he does! Him and that onrey dog of his’n. Traipsn’ ’round them hills, spiles my milk, it does, and that air the God’s own truth!” Aunt Bessie Eversole declared that most everyone “spiled” her milk so not many, even the superstitious among those who lived in the mining community of Dewberry Creek, paid much attention to her. Most, in fact, seemed taken with the new arrival.  

“He’s educated. Could live anywhere he wants. Got tired of city life and come back where his roots is. Half-nephew to old man Airlie Sanders, from the other side of Dawson’s Cove.”

Lige proved indeed to be an educated young man, and an industrious one to boot. He shunned an offer to work as a mine foreman, instead joined up with “Runt” Jenkins who owned a small sawmill up the mouth of Trace Branch. Lige knew the woods, he knew how to pick the right trees for the best lumber, and how to drop them so that the new growth coming on wasn’t harmed. Pretty soon, two more from the mines came to help, and the sound of chopping, falling trees, and the whining of the sawmill could be heard as long as daylight lasted.  

Sundays Lige kept to himself, preferring to roam the hills and high meadows, whittling pop guns and sassafras whistles, or just visiting with his little shepherd dog, Bev.  

Red maple leaf fallen in dewy grass

October’s maples were on fire and the air smelled a lot like persimmons

It was one such time, before the first killing frost, when October’s maples were on fire and the air smelled a lot like persimmons, that Nathan happened to come up on Lige, sitting quietly on a sun-bleached boulder. Nathan stopped, tried to hold his breath, and watched.

“Chucka, chucka, twheet, twheet…” Softly, over and over, Lige repeated the sound. Kind of a cross between a mockingbird and a gray squirrel, Nathan thought. The groundhog popping up not ten feet from Lige’s feet must have thought differently. Amazingly, it ventured close enough to the man to grab several raw peanuts from his outstretched hand.

“Well I’ll be struck dumb!” Nathan spoke aloud, forgetting the need to keep silence.

The groundhog squealed a retreat to his hole, and Lige jumped to his feet, startled and a bit amused.

“Hey, Nathan.” For Lige knew who the boy was. “How’re you?”

But the words glanced off Nathan’s rapidly retreating back. He recalled he had been both scared and embarrassed. Next day at school, he told Will about what he had seen.

“Maybe I’ll look him up and say, ‘Sorry that I scared you, Lige!’ That sound decent to you, Will?”

“I reckon,” Will answered. “Course, findin’ him ain’t gonna be hard. They saying down at the store that he aim to come courtin’ your maw!”

The frigid air and gusting winds were no more chilling to Nathan now than Will’s words had been months earlier. His eyes stung. Whether from tears of helplessness at the accuracy of Will’s prediction or the deepening of the wintry night, he cared little. Whatever, he felt no sense of healing, and he turned once again toward the warmth of the cabin.

A sound stopped his move. Sharp and clear, even at this distance, the plaintive whistle of a steam locomotive called across the valley, its long solitary notes proud and courageous in the late December cold. Number 36! Nathan straightened and stared to catch a glimpse of the roaring giant as it began the long, upgrade climb that would take it through Raven’s Tunnel, past the switch at Dunhaven, and out of the winding, twisting passes to the world beyond. For a few moments, Nathan could see sparks jumping from the flying drive wheels as they pounded the this ribbon of steel for every ounce of hold they could muster. Steam and billowing smoke rose together to mix with the low-running clouds that raced rapidly away from the charging train. Then it was gone, and the halo from the red signal lantern on the caboose winked in retreat.  

The train’s whistle echoed a last call and Nathan smiled as he thought of the next trip it would make through Dunhaven and the special cargo that would be on board. Dewberry Creek had no station, only the rail siding at the Dunhaven switch, where Black Diamond’s coal cars were coupled, and mail and freight were dropped. That was enough. Enough at least for the quick transfer into eager and waiting hands of a large and well-packed box marked:

TO DEWBERRY CREEK SCHOOL –

BE CAREFUL!

Hands all along the way would help deliver the box to place it proudly beside the Christmas tree where all during the school pageant it could be seen, waiting for the moment of magic that spelled Christmas for the lonesome, dreary, tired community that took the name from a time when the earth was clean. And magic there seemed to be. The opening of the box was awaited with breath held and eyes alert until just the right instant!

Oh! And what a moment it would be. The aroma of Christmas candy would slip from the box to spread around the stoop-shouldered miners with their grime-filled faces, their drab-looking wives, and their pale, thin children. As the tart, sweet, tempting, and colorful flavors would emerge from the box, a change, like light in the middle of night, would come over the people. They would stand proud and straight; the wives, with flushed cheeks, smiling away their somber faces of tiredness; the children laughing and cheering; and the men losing their reticence amidst back slappings and hand shakes that maid more eloquently than words:

“MERRY CHRISTMAS”

But for Nathan, there was the best magic of all. Lifted onto the broad strong shoulders of his dad he had been allowed the first fistful to come from the box, to savor first its taste, and to lead the crowd in cheers of celebration. And of course, it was the celebration which was the magic he felt, but that mattered little, for what he knew was that he was happy, and that was what counted.

Now it was gone, and although the box of candy might come for others, would there ever again be a time when the first handful would be his? In spite of all his efforts to the contrary, his eyes glistened; with no further delays he returned to the closeness and warmth of the cabin.