Cathryn stood quite breathless one bitter cold December day, watching Mr. VanDermere fight to steady his team of horses. His wagon, loaded with coal, had slid backward half the length of the arching, ice-covered bridge and was lodged against the support beam at the bridge’s mouth. Caught between the beam and the iced incline, Mr. VanDermere could neither back the horses up nor guide them forward. The bridge groaned as its wooden railing began to give way. The horses were fighting hard, the muscles of their backs, necks, and thighs bunching into knots as they struggled against the slippery ice and relentless wind. Would they break the rail and fall to the icy river below? If they did, they would take Mr. VanDermere with them, and all would be killed!
Cathryn’s mother, her arms laden with Christmas packages, opened the door to their home and went in, but Cathryn stood staring at the massive horses, her eyes glazed with fear. She had been terrified of horses ever since being knocked down and nearly killed five years earlier by Mrs. Johnson’s runaway mare.
“Cathryn, come in here!” Her mother’s voice shook her out of her memories. “Hurry!” Cathryn ran inside and found her mother at the kitchen stove, hurriedly emptying the ash bin into a sack. Soot and ash were wisping through the air, coating everything in her mother’s always spotless kitchen, including her mother! What a sight! “Run this ash to Mr. VanDermere so he can put it on the ice for the horses’ hooves to grip. Hurry! I’ll go to the neighbors for more.”
Cathryn didn’t move. Her mother knew that she was afraid of horses, and Mr. VanDermere’s horses were the largest beasts she had ever seen!
“Cathryn, I said hurry! We haven’t a minute to waste! You won’t have to go near the horses—just take the sack to Mr. VanDermere. Now run!”
As Cathryn stepped outside, the bitter wind caught her clothes and nearly toppled her to the ground. The gusts were so fierce that most people had stayed indoors. As she neared the bridge, she could see that both Mr. VanDermere and his horses were exhausted. When she got near the animals, the smell of sweat and fear hung in the air. Her heart pounded faster. What if the horses should step on her, or, worse, knock her off the bridge into the river? Her mind raced near panic. She knew that the ashes in her hand were Mr. VanDermere’s only hope, yet she stopped, too afraid to go any closer.
“Oh, Cathryn, you’d best not get too close, my dear!” Mr. VanDermere shouted breathlessly over the howling wind.
Cathryn took a few steps forward. “My mother sent me with a sack of ashes. She said that you could put them on the ice.”
“Oh, that would be most helpful!” Mr. VanDermere said. As he spoke, part of the bridge’s railing gave way and plunged to the icy depths below.
This again stopped Cathryn dead in her tracks. Fighting her fear, she tried to give herself reasons for going on. The wagon would already have fallen off the bridge if it hadn’t been lodged against the support beam. The wagon contained a full week’s wages for Mr. VanDermere. Losing it would leave his family without food. And if the wagon fell, so would the horses.
Cathryn thought about how lovely her own home was with Christmas decorations and food aplenty. She thought, too, about the VanDermere children, who had very little as it was. Their father couldn’t afford to lose the wagon or its contents, and he couldn’t replace the horses. And the children might lose not only their food, but their father!
“Cathryn, you’d best get back! The rest of the railing is about to go, and I can’t fight much longer!”
What a brave man he is! Cathryn thought. With a new surge of courage, she ran up the slick incline toward him. It was very slippery, and she fell more than once. Reaching the wagon at last, she tried to hand the sack to Mr. VanDermere.
“I can’t pour it myself, dear. I need to hold onto the team.”
Cathryn stared up at him, stricken with fear. Mr. VanDermere expected her to scatter the ashes! That meant getting close to the feet of the large beasts. They could crush her! But if she didn’t help, they’d all fall off the bridge any minute!
Opening the sack with shaking hands, Cathryn fought the wind as she tossed handfuls of ash under the front feet of the horses. They had a wild, fearful look in their eyes but seemed to sense that she was there to help. She went down the incline a bit and scattered ashes beneath their hind legs. Climbing to the crest of the bridge, she backed down toward the horses, scattering the remaining ash.
Within seconds the broad hooves began to grip the ash. It was working! The horses found sure footing and clambered over the peak of the bridge. Mr. VanDermere cautiously guided the team down the other side, then climbed from the wagon and stood panting heavily.
When he’d caught his breath, he walked back to Cathryn. “You have saved my life and the lives of my horses! Plus my wagon! What a wonderfully brave thing you have done!”
Cathryn started to cry from relief that the nightmare was finally over. She hugged Mr. VanDermere. “Just have a happy Christmas, sir.”
Cathryn’s mother came running up. “Oh, Cathryn, are you all right? I’m sorry it took me so long. I had a hard time finding anyone with ashes to give. I’m afraid this is all I was able to gather.” She handed a small sack to Mr. VanDermere.
“This is a brave little girl you have here, ma’am. She saved my life and the lives of my horses.” He tucked the sack into his oversized coat pocket and patted it. “Thank you. I’ll hang onto this in case I need it.” He tipped his hat to them and went back over the bridge to attend to his still-trembling horses.
Cathryn’s mother hugged her tightly. “I’m so proud of you,” she said, “and so grateful that you’re safe! How about some hot cocoa?”
Cathryn smiled yes. Starting for home, she noticed that her hands were scraped from her falls. She was covered with ash, and her winter coat was torn. But she didn’t care. She felt good. In fact, she had never felt better!