Sandhill Christmas


Dad’s dependable ranch hand, Dick, had already disappeared with the snowplow behind the thick curtain of moving snow when Ellie Ford went outside. The low hay sled was loaded with timothy hay, and two teams were hitched to it.

“Come on, Sis!” Ellie’s ten-year-old brother, Wes, called. “I’ll help you up!”

Wes scrambled to the top of the hay and reached down a hand to Ellie. He laughed as she struggled up the ladder of the rack. Wes’s round, freckled face between the earflaps of his red woolen cap beamed cheerfully.

How can he be so cheerful? Ellie wondered. It’s Christmas Day, and we’re stuck here on the ranch playing nursemaids to a bunch of silly cattle instead of being at Grandmother’s.

Wes moved the teams expertly out of the barnyard and down the lane between the sapling maple trees.

It was the Ford family’s first year at ranching, and Ellie thought again of the changes that had been made in their lives. In the city they had been surrounded by friends and relatives. But here in the sandhills, their nearest neighbor lived ten miles away.

The snowstorm had begun two days ago when they were dismissed from school for Christmas vacation. The wind-driven pellets had made a pinging sound against the school bus as it chugged along toward the crossroads where Ellie and Wes were the last to get off. By the time they had reached home, the corn snow had turned into huge fluffy flakes.

Ellie had known that something was wrong when her father came in from the living room that night at suppertime looking anxiously at first one member of his family and then another. Finally he announced to them after the blessing was said, “There’s a blizzard predicted for the sandhills, and I’ve decided I’d better stay here on the ranch.”

The announcement was greeted with gasps and exclamations.

“But that doesn’t mean that the rest of you can’t go!” he hurried to say. “It’s just that Dick will need help so the trails can be kept open to the feed shelters. Those cattle mean a lot to our future.”

“I’ll stay too!” Wes cried, not hesitating an instant.

“You’ll need someone to stay and cook for you,” Mother told them. “But Ellie can still go down to Grandmother’s tomorrow on the train from Cody. She’s been planning on it since Thanksgiving.”

Ellie knew that they had all been planning on it. She knew, too, that no matter how badly she wanted to go, she just couldn’t. “Maybe I can help somehow,” she finally managed to say, fighting the hard lump in her throat.

“That’s what I hoped for!” Father had exclaimed approvingly. “A solid front! And I’ll make it up to you somehow.”

But Ellie didn’t see how he could make up for a spoiled Christmas.

Now as the feed shelter loomed in front of them through the falling snow, Ellie asked, “Wes, do you think we’ll be snowed in?”

Wes grinned and guided the teams under the shelter before he answered, “I hope so!”

“Why, Wes Ford! Do you mean you’d rather be here than at Grandmother’s?”

“I would rather be at Grandmother’s, Ellie,” Wes replied, “but Christmas can be Christmas wherever you are.”

Though he was just a year older than Ellie, Wes sounded quite grownup. His words made Ellie feel a quick shame for her complaining thoughts. They had just picked up their pitchforks when Wes suddenly frowned. “Sis, some of the cattle are missing!” he declared.

“Could they be at the other shelters?” Ellie asked.

“Maybe. But maybe they’re not. Do you remember what Dick and Dad said about the river fence?” Wes asked thoughtfully.

Ellie shook her head.

“They said that it was strong enough for ordinary weather, but if those cattle got lost in a blinding snowstorm, they could go right through it and end up in White River!”

“We’re not going over to the river to see if they’re there!” Ellie protested.

“I’m going,” Wes told her. “Dick can’t leave that snowplow, and Dad’s on the other wagon with the concentrate.”

“Well, I’ll go with you then,” Ellie recanted.

When the hay had been pitched off into the feeders, they started out on foot. Ellie’s feet soon grew numb from the bitter cold, and her legs began to protest against the constant effort to push onward up another hill. There was no horizon, only the dull white sky and the white earth and the eternal falling of the snow.

There were no trees to use as guideposts, only the rise and fall of the blanketed hills. “Just a little farther, Sis,” Wes encouraged her, beating his arms against his body.

Now and then, Wes looked anxiously at the sky, and Ellie was sure that despite his cheerfulness, he realized the danger of being lost. But the thought of the cattle in danger kept him going.

They had reached the top of another rise, and Ellie was telling herself that she just could not go up another hill when Wes shouted with relief, “There’s the river!”

He rushed down the hill, and Ellie tried to hurry after him. “There they are! And look, Sis, they’re hugging that fence!”

There were more than twenty head reluctant to leave the protection of the trees. Ellie remembered apprehensively that they were range cattle and that they were used to men on horseback. She held back her fright as she helped Wes start them moving.

When they finally reached the shelter again, Ellie flung herself down on the hay sled and decided that she had never been so tired and cold in her life. Only after the cattle were safe and munching hay did Wes suggest they drink the hot chocolate their mother had put in a thermos bottle.

“Let’s hurry home, Wes,” Ellie said. “It’s nearly two o’clock.”

But Wes was looking down the hill toward the road. “Sis,” he said, “there’s a car down there. Looks like it’s in trouble.”

When they had finished their chocolate, the car was still there. “I’m going down and see if I can give them a hand,” Wes declared.

“Oh, Wes,” moaned Ellie. “We’ve already ruined our Christmas. The snowplow will come along soon …”

Wes didn’t answer, but Ellie saw the determined look in his blue eyes as he started away. Feeling sorry for herself, she reluctantly waded after him. The figures in the road had been trying to dig out their car when Wes and Ellie reached the fence.

“Hi, there!” the man shouted, looking up and waving his arm.

“Why, it’s Dr. Davis, Wes! And his nurse Mary!” Ellie exclaimed in surprise.

Wes and Ellie climbed over the fence.

“Hello, Wes. Hello, Ellie,” Mary said. “I thought we’d never see civilization again. Dr. Davis’s car doesn’t like snow.”

“Well,” Wes offered, “I’m not a mechanic, but I have a sled and teams up there at the shelter—”

Mary didn’t let him finish. She grabbed Ellie’s arm and they started for the fence.

Dr. Davis chuckled as he locked the car. “We’ve been over at the Anderson ranch since last night. They have a new six-pound girl. And we were trying to get home for Christmas dinner.”

Ellie heard Dr. Davis as she helped Mary over the fence. Her eyes caught sight of the gold bars on the turned-up collar of Mary’s heavy navy blue cape.

Suddenly Ellie thought of all the other people in the world who, like Dr. Davis and Mary, could not always be just where they wanted to be at Christmastime. But that didn’t mean that Christmas was lost! It couldn’t be, as long as people carry the spirit of Christmas in their hearts.

And Ellie understood now what that spirit was. Wes had taught her today, here in the snow-covered sandhills, much about loving and unselfish concern for others.

I’m going to give Mary the knitted bed cape I made for Grandmother! Ellie decided as the teams and hay sled headed for the ranch house a few minutes later. I’m sure Grandmother will understand!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer