The big bay team moved the heavily loaded wagon down the country lane at a good clip, their hooves crunching as they smashed through the crusted snow. Over the sounds of the horses and the wagon wheels could be heard the tinkle of silver bells. It was two days till Christmas and Aaron had been to town to do the last bit of shopping for groceries and other things that Sara needed to finish out their holiday supplies. Not one to waste time or trips unnecessarily, he had stopped by the feed mill for a load of oats and ground barley for the horses and hogs. He grain-fed his teams the year around, so they were always in good condition. He was once asked what color of horses he liked best. He replied, “Fat is a pretty color.”
Aaron was not a rich man, but he was kind and generous. He believed the deed was reward enough and sought no thanks for his kindness. Now as he neared home with his loaded wagon, he wondered if the Tilton family would have what they needed for the cold winter months that lay ahead. The widow had five children, the oldest not yet ten. He turned the team on the section line; he would just drive by and casually look things over.
When he got near their little two-room board shack, he saw that the older children were outside in the snow gathering chips for the fire. Tim, the six-year-old, came running when he saw the team and heard the bells. He was crazy about horses and no one had horses like Aaron Simpson’s. He loved the long red tassels that waved from the bridle clips, the long strings of red, white, and blue celluloid rings that adorned the spreaders, and most of all the sound of the little silver bells. Each Christmas Aaron would fasten four silver bells to each horse’s hame strappings. They made such a pleasant sound as the horses tossed their heads and shifted their collars as they walked.
“Whoa now!” Aaron called. “Hello, Tim. Why don’t you climb up here and let me see if I have something in my pocket a boy like you might enjoy?” He wrapped the lines around the wagon brake. Tim hesitated. The wagon looked awfully high.
“Come on,” Aaron encouraged. “I’ll help you.”
Clinging to the heavily mittened hand, Tim climbed over the wheel and onto the seat, and looked up into his face, suddenly remembering something that had happened about a month before. “Did you bring us the flour and the Christmas money or was it the Lord like Mama says?”
Aaron didn’t seem to hear, rummaging deep in his coat pocket for a sack of stick candy. “Now, could you use these?” he asked, counting out twelve peppermint sticks.
“Yes, oh yes, sir!” The light in Tim’s eyes was thanks enough for Aaron. Carefully he helped Tim back over the wheel, both hands clutching his treasure. “Share them with the other children and with your mother and have a good Christmas.”
“We’re going over to Uncle Lew’s for Christmas dinner,” Tim shouted over his shoulder as he ran toward the cabin.
Lifting the lines, Aaron started the team on their way home again, but not before he’d seen Mary Ann and Elizabeth carry an old dishpan a second time to where the woodpile had been when their father was alive. They were gathering the chips and splinters, all that was left. They’ll not be able to keep warm in this weather with that kind of wood, he frowned. “Have to do something about that,” he said half-aloud to the team, breaking the stillness of the winter afternoon.
He looked at his watch as he neared the farmyard gate; there was just time to care for his horses and unload the wagon before supper. After just a few moments he stepped through the kitchen door, his arms filled with packages. One he handed to Sara, a special present that wouldn’t wait till Christmas Day. He wanted her to know how much she was loved and appreciated. The gift was fabric for a new dress, and the way her delighted smile warmed him made his family prayer especially grateful.
He had spent much thought for those other packages, presents for his three sons and two daughters—not extravagant, but good quality and thoughtfully chosen by him and Sara. His philosophy of good stewardship kept his house well painted, his granaries and barns in good repair, farm implements well oiled and sharp. Although his income was limited, his thrift and good husbandry made others think him well-to-do.
Tonight as they ate their supper, he watched the snow dance in the wind, whipping around the bare trees and across the farmyard. Their well-built home was warm and comfortable, but he wondered how it was at the Tiltons’, with only chips and sawdust to burn. He would not sleep well that night, thinking of the little children huddled together, the air frosty in their bedrooms.
By dawn of the next day, a cloudy prelude to Christmas, Aaron was rolling two of the biggest and best pine logs from his winter wood supply. After the morning chores and a good breakfast, he was back at the woodpile with a two-man crosscut saw and his heavy double-bitted axe from the granary. He loaded one of the logs onto the notched log sawbucks and marked the log into stove lengths. The heavy saw would have pulled too hard for many men, but Aaron was a powerful man. He whipped the saw down almost to the bottom of each cut, hour after hour at a steady pace.
He looked at the little piles of sawdust beneath the log and watched them grow bigger with each stroke. When all the cuts were finished, he took the five-pound axe and, with a single stroke, cut each one free. Blocks of wood lay everywhere.
Now he felt the axe blade for sharpness; it was keen as a razor. Once when a neighbor had watched him test-shave the hair from the back of his hand, he had asked, “You lost your razor, Aaron?”
“No,” Aaron had replied, “but when I cut wood, I want to cut it, not just bruise it.”
Aaron removed the end-gate from the big wagon box and backed the wagon up to his chopping block. As he split each block into stovewood, he tossed it into the box where his boys stacked it. By nightfall the wide box was heaped high. He checked the top so that none would fall off when the wagon moved.
Christmas morning came, clear and clean. Several inches of new snow had fallen, covering the chips and bark around the chopping block. Even the load of wood was disguised under its covering. After chores was the wonderful family time of sharing gifts. Aaron held little Zillah on his lap and listened to her eager chatter about the beautiful doll and new doll clothes that had appeared for her under the tree. The odor of the roasting goose teased their noses.
Jacob watched Lew’s double buggy pass their house and head back filled with the Tilton family. Aaron got up and beckoned to his sons. Excited, they followed him to the barn and helped him hitch the team to the loaded wagon. In three hours they were home again, rosy from the exercise, glowing with happiness, and impressively silent.
As the afternoon wore on, a fresh breeze came up. Soon the new snow was sifting across the old crust, filling every depression. Aaron was pleased. There would be no wagon tracks, no embarrassing “thank yous,” and no way to diminish the quiet happiness warming him.