It was a bad year, the year I turned nine. The spring rains never came, but the grasshoppers did, devouring the sparse and spindly crop that had struggled through the drought. Winter arrived, shrieking, with icy fingers that clawed through the cracks in our log cabin.
One day, with gunmetal clouds hovering overhead, Pa and I took the team and sleigh to get firewood. Bart, our big gelding, usually gentle and steady, panicked while Pa was snaking a log through the timber. Floundering in the powdery snow, he kicked Pa, and the sound of Pa's leg snapping was a rifle shot in the frozen air.
The doctor came, though there was no money. Ma sat in the rocking chair holding baby Gracie close to her, an aura of desperation clinging to her.
In the following dark days, Ma and I cut firewood from the few logs on the sleigh, which I’d managed to drive close to the cabin before unharnessing the team. I’d forked them the last wisps of hay and reluctantly turned them out to fend for themselves. There was nothing else to do.
At night, I heard distraught whispers, and my heart clenched with fear.
“Is Pa going to die?” I asked Ma.
“No, Lord willing.” Her eyes were the colour of the clouds, dull and heavy.
Christmas Day, Ma cooked bacon grease and flour into a gravy that felt like hot lead in my belly.
“Hello! Hello!” Mid-afternoon, we heard the joyous greeting outside, and there was Mr. Jenkins, our nearest neighbour, on his saddle horse which was laden with bulging sacks. “Merry Christmas! You, son, help me. Go on, don’t be standing there gawking. Take these packages to your Ma.”
The cabin was full, bursting with the merry presence of Mr. Jenkins, his jovial voice, and a lavish bounty: potatoes, ham, oranges, mittens for me, socks for Pa, ribbons for Ma and Gracie. Ma clutched her apron to her face.
“None of that, ma’am.” He chucked Gracie under her chin and clipped me on the shoulder, the way uncles and pals do. “I’d like a word with you,” he said to Pa, whose face was gray, pressed against his pillow. There came somber murmurs, a gravelly exchange, laced with sighs and comforting pats.
Then, it was time for Mr. Jenkins to go.
“Henry, go help Mr. Jenkins. He’ll be taking the team.” Pa’s voice was weary, pained.
“But, Pa,” I cried, “Mr. Jenkins can’t take Bart and Belle. You’re angry with Bart, that’s all . . .”
Ma hushed me, and I dragged myself out to help.
Throughout the winter, Mr. Jenkins made frequent and timely visits, always knowing when we needed butter and bacon or apples and tea. He split wood now and then, too. I never wondered how Mr. Jenkins, in the midst of all the misfortune and hardship that year, managed to keep us fed and warm.
When the prairie crocuses were peeking through scraps of snow, Mr. Jenkins came again, this time leading Bart and Belle.
“Here, son, find a place for these critters.”
“Yes, sir!” It was a miracle; the horses were sassy and glossy and back home in our own yard.
Pa hobbled to the door using a willow branch I’d whittled for him. His forehead was knotted up in pain or confusion, I didn’t know which. I waited, uncertain, holding the horses’ leads.
“What’s going on here?” Pa demanded.
“Why, sir, I brought your horses back.”
“My horses? What foolishness have you done, Mr. Jenkins? You were to sell them and pay my overdue debt at the bank.”
“I sold them to myself, sir, and took the money to the banker. I fed them good, and they earned their keep all winter. Now I’ve brought them back to you.”
Pa slumped against his crutch. “I’ve nothing to pay you.”
“You owe me no money, sir, and I have made but a small payment toward my debt to love and care for my neighbours and friends, especially those having a bad spell, especially these little ones.” He nodded to Gracie and me. “I’m much obliged for the privilege, sir.”
Standing in the freshening breeze, redolent of green things and infused with the comforting scent of Bart and Belle, and watching Ma weep while Pa shook Mr. Jenkins’ hand, I learned true debt has nought to do with dollars and banks, but with the eternal command to love others, a debt that can never be paid in full, outstanding forever.
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