Sometimes winters in east Texas were as mild and soft as a baby’s breath; other times they snarled and whistled and shivered. This winter, the winter of Kerrie’s big surprise, was a whistle-and-shiver kind.
Papa and big brother, Joseph, were outdoors most of every day. They gathered wood and chopped it into logs for the fireplace. They made holes through the ice on the river and set lines for the big yellow catfish that swam on the bottom.
Until the winter rains had turned the ruts in the dirt road into deep mud puddles, the school wagon had taken Kerrie into town to school. But now only a horse and rider could make the trip into the settlement, and Kerrie wasn’t old enough to go by herself, so she had to stay home. Every morning Kerrie helped Mama clean their log house, and every afternoon she studied her lessons.
Sometimes Kerrie wished that she weren’t a farm girl. Town girls didn’t have to worry about muddy roads.
It had been weeks since Kerrie’s family had gone to town. But finally the temperature dropped, and the muddy road froze hard and firm. At first it seemed that the roads would be frozen enough to take the wagon to town for the Christmas Eve party. But the day before Christmas Eve, sleet began to fall. The wagon couldn’t make it on icy roads, so they wouldn’t be able to go to the party, after all.
“What a pretty sampler,” Papa said, stacking a load of wood beside the fireplace that evening. “You’re a handy girl with a needle.”
Kerrie smiled. She didn’t tell Papa how she hated embroidering and long cold winters and having to stay inside all day by the fire. It would have made Papa feel sad.
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve,” Papa reminded her, hanging his coat near the fire to dry.
Kerrie only nodded. She was too sad to talk.
“Where’s Joseph?” Mama asked.
Papa’s blue eyes twinkled, “In the barn. He and I are making a Christmas surprise.”
Little Helen had been busy rocking her doll to sleep. She looked at Papa, about to ask what the surprise was.
But Papa shook his head. “Just wait and see,” he said. “Wait and see.”
Supper was Kerrie’s favorite—hot cornmeal mush sweetened with honey and thinned with thick yellow cream. But Kerrie could hardly eat. She kept thinking sadly about missing the Christmas party in town and the beautiful Christmas tree with its gold and silver ornaments.
By bedtime the sleet had stopped, and snowflakes as big as pigeon feathers were drifting down. Kerrie knew that by morning everything would be buried under a blanket of sleet and snow.
Squeals of laughter from outside awoke Kerrie. She hurried to the window. Papa, Mama, Joseph, and Helen were already dressed and outside. Ice and snow covered everything. Mama’s outdoor clay oven, the one that Joseph had built so that the one in the kitchen wouldn’t have to be used in the summer, looked like a tiny igloo. The trees were white and sparkling in the cold morning sun. Kerrie felt that she’d gone to sleep in one world and awakened in a fairyland. It was so beautiful that she almost didn’t mind missing the Christmas party.
Slipping and sliding, everyone came inside. “Ready for the big surprise?” Papa asked Kerrie. Papa’s blue eyes were so twinkly that Kerrie knew that the surprise must be something wonderful. She nodded her head, too excited to speak.
“First, baths, then clean clothes,” Mama ordered, smiling her happiest smile.
Baths! Clean clothes! Kerrie’s heart gave a leap—the Christmas party! Then she remembered the roads. Nobody, not even Papa could drive a wagon over them.
“We’re burning daylight,” Papa said. “Let’s hurry!”
Kerrie and Helen bathed in the big tin tub pushed close to the fireplace. Joseph and Papa, secretively smiling, went out to the barn.
It seemed to Kerrie that it took forever to dress: two petticoats, two pairs of long cotton stockings, then her warmest dress.
Just as she and Helen were putting on their coats and mittens, Kerrie heard the prettiest sound. It was the jingling of bells. They ran out the door as fast as they could.
“What is it?” Helen asked, staring at the strangest sight that she’d ever seen.
“It’s a sleigh!” Kerrie shouted in answer. “At least I think that it is,” she added, for it was a strange-looking sleigh. Papa and Joseph had replaced the wheels of the wagon with runners. Now it slid over the icy road with hardly any effort from their strong, brown horse. The back of the wagon was filled with fresh hay and covered with quilts. Gently Papa helped Kerrie and Helen and Mama into the sweet-smelling nest. How warm it was.
The sleigh felt as if it were flying over the frozen earth. Kerrie didn’t believe that anything, not even the big black train, could go so fast.
How quickly the miles flew under them. To Kerrie’s surprise, Papa didn’t go directly to the settlement. First he went to Uncle Joe’s farm. Laughing, and bundled in quilts, Uncle Joe, Aunt Katie, and Josie climbed into the soft hay.
Next Papa picked up the Johnson family. Their last stop was for the Landers: a mother, father, five little girls, and one big brother. The wagon was so full that not even a Christmas mouse could have found a place to sit.
The cold sun was slipping behind the horizon when they reached the settlement. How the townspeople welcomed them! Kerrie waved to her best friend, Ara. Ara’s eyes opened wide. She’d never seen a sleigh before.
Kerrie was the last one out of the sleigh. “How was it?” Papa asked. “Did you like your surprise?”
Kerrie pressed her cold face close to Papa’s face and kissed his cheek.
“That’s a good answer,” Papa said with a laugh. “The best kind. Now run inside. You don’t want to miss the tree.”
But Kerrie didn’t care about the tree anymore. Flying over the frozen ground in Papa’s sleigh was the best present she’d ever had. She was sure that nothing so wonderful had ever happened to anyone else. But, then, nobody else had ever had a papa more wonderful than hers.