Two hours after Jay arrived, I knew I didn’t like my cousin. Two days after he arrived, I didn’t like myself. I knew that this would be my worst Christmas ever, and I began fervently wishing for it to be over with and for Jay to be gone. More than anything, I thought about how ashamed of me my father would be if he found out that I was a weakling who couldn’t stop somebody from rubbing my nose in the dirt.
A month ago Aunt Edith had written that she and Uncle Harley and Jay were coming to spend Christmas with us. On the day they were to arrive, we waited expectantly on the porch as we watched a moving cloud of dust appear far down the road. Soon a shiny green car pulled up in front of the gate.
“A brand new Studebaker!” my father said, wonderment in his voice. Since the drought and the dust storms and the depression had started, we had seen little that was new, much less a new car.
During the handshakes and hugs, I noticed that Jay was almost as big as Uncle Harley, although my cousin had just turned twelve, not quite a year older than I was.
“Jay’s the biggest boy in his grade,” Aunt Edith announced proudly.
“Yes, sir, this boy’s going to be a football star,” Uncle Harley boomed, even prouder.
“I reckon Andy’s like his dad,” my mother said, chuckling. “John says he got his growth late, but there was plenty of it—six-four in his stocking feet.”
My father didn’t say anything, and I wondered if he was wishing that I was bigger so that he could act proud too.
Later, upstairs in my room, Jay wandered around, restlessly touching things.
“You any good at marbles?” he asked. He sounded as if he was pretty sure I wasn’t.
“OK, I guess,” I answered.
While he got his marbles from his suitcase, I drew a chalk circle on the worn linoleum floor. “You go first,” I offered, since he was company.
He won the first game. I won the next two.
He scooped up his marbles. “This sorry old floor is uneven, and you have an unfair advantage, ‘cause you’re used to it. Without an unfair advantage you wouldn’t have won, kid.”
“Nuts! You’re just a bad loser,” I returned.
Before I knew what was happening, he had pinned me facedown on the floor, and with his knee in my back, he twisted my arm up behind my shoulder blades.
“Say uncle,” he ordered.
“Say uncle, you redheaded, freckle-faced runt. Say it!” He twisted until hot pain seared my shoulder.
“Uncle,” I managed to gasp.
Shoving my nose hard against the floor, he released me. When we were standing, facing each other, he said calmly, “If you tattle, I’ll get you again.”
“I don’t tattle.” I could feel my face flame at the insult.
“Dandy little Andy,” he taunted, with a mocking grin.
Around the grown-ups flattery just oozed from Jay, and he was extra polite to me. But when we were alone, he was something between barely tolerable and awful. In his tolerable state he talked incessantly but brushed aside anything I had to say as if he were shooing away a fly. When he prodded the cow I was milking and she put her foot in the bucket, he jeered, “Dandy little Andy.” My arms were sore from his constant knuckling me with his oversize fist.
On Christmas Eve, when we were chucking rocks at a fence post, Jay threw one that missed its mark and hit the door of his father’s car. It left a big dent and chipped the paint. My father and Uncle Harley, approaching from the well house, saw the damage and both of us with rocks in our hands.
“Son, did you do that?” Uncle Harley sounded stern.
Jay looked him directly in the eye and replied so earnestly that I would have believed him myself if I hadn’t known better, “No, sir, I did not.” Then he glanced at me with a pained expression.
After that performance my “I didn’t do it” sounded like a guilty denial.
My father stood silent for a moment, then turned and strode toward the barn.
Despite my misery, Christmas day did come. Jay and I took the firecrackers Uncle Harley had brought for us to a bare spot of ground near the windmill and spent the morning blowing up tin cans. I was so relieved that this was the last day of his visit that I actually had a good time.
Late in the afternoon Jay tagged along when I went to the pasture to drive in the milk cows. I rounded up the cows and was headed back with them when I saw a firecracker arc and explode under the lead cow. She tossed her horns and ran bellowing toward the barn.
I turned and saw my cousin, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, a satisfied smirk on his face.
Then I smelled it—prairie fire! I whirled around to see flames beginning to lick through the dry winter grass.
I ripped off my plaid mackinaw and beat out the fire nearest me, but the ever-present west wind fueled new flames that raced along, devouring the grass. I knew that if I couldn’t stop the blaze, it could burn up three counties. As I ran up and down beating the growing line of fire, I became like a piece of machinery, with no thought of heat or smoke or time. I didn’t even wonder where Jay was. I had completely forgotten him.
Finally I became aware of my father’s voice. “Andy, it’s all right. The fire’s out.”
I saw my father, his eyes red-rimmed from the smoke, holding wet gunny sacks in each hand. Blackened grass surrounded us. We walked wearily to the dry creek bed and dropped down on a flat rock.
From farther down the creek Jay suddenly appeared, striding purposefully. “I was going for help, sir. After I saw Andy drop that firecracker, I—”
My father’s voice cracked like a whip, “Don’t bother with another one of your lies, Jay. Go along to the house.”
My father turned back to me and put his hands on my shoulders. He said in his quiet way, “You did a man’s job today, Andy. With everything the way it is, if all the winter grazing had burned, I don’t see how we could have held on to the ranch another year. I’m grateful to you.”
I understood then that in ways that mattered to my father, I stood tall.
The next morning as we waved good-bye to the occupants of the green car, I found myself suddenly thinking that this was my best Christmas ever.