Hold on there, Henry! That package isn't for you. I appreciate your offer to help but you need to give that back. Your Christmas gifts are all in the house already. I'm back from a long day in Sundance—home safe and sound after quite an adventure, as it turns out—but I haven't brought you anything from town.
You remember our neighbors, the Kerbaughs? Carl Kerbaugh came over early this morning. He was alone, on horseback of course. It was right after breakfast. You might have been in your room. He looked close to having a heart attack. He told me one of his oldest girls, Mary, got stuck out in the blizzard last night. Heck of storm. Did you know one snow drift rose up to the roof of our calving barn?
Carl said she had attended a dance in Sundance last night. That's where she should've been coming back from when the blizzard hit. Mary is only a year older that you and someday real soon you'll be old enough to attend socials and dances. I hope you'll have more sense when it comes to noting the onset of bad weather. She should have stayed home.
I knew it would be a chore trying to pull a wagon through the drifts on the roads, but one look in Carl's eyes told me it had to be done. I hitched one of our best horses up to a buckboard and Carl hitched his up to it too. We were plodding along in a few minutes' time. We didn't talk much; just scanned the terrain for any sign of Mary.
I figured our search would be in vain. Like as not, Mary got stuck and started walking in the blizzard, ending up only-God-knows-where. Someone would find her body in their pasture with the first spring thaw. I shuddered at the thought of it. Kerbaugh may have plenty of kids to spare, but that's a hell of a way to go. You wouldn't want to be out there in all that snow, would you? I didn't think so.
We worked our way along the road to town. The crunch of snow under the horses' hooves and the jostling of the buckboard kept me feeling edgy. I glanced at Carl and noted the ashen hue of his face. His eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. Had his tears spilled over, I bet they'd have frozen on his cheeks in the frigid morning air.
"It's my fault." Carl swallowed hard but didn't look at me. "I should have never let Mary go in to town."
I tried to think of something reassuring to say and came up empty, so I didn't say anything. A few minutes later, a gray shape ahead of us separated itself from all the layers of white. I seen right away that it was a wagon, turned off the path and facing nowhere in particular. Someone dressed in a bonnet sat bolt upright on the jockey box. The wind tore the bonnet free as we watched. It tumbled across the snow but the figure didn't move. I heard Carl groan beside me and then he pulled back on the reins. The team stopped. I jumped from the buckboard and stumbled through the drifts of snow until I got to the wagon.
Whatever horse or horses that'd been pulling the wagon were long gone. I turned around in time to see Carl retch over the side of the buckboard. I climbed up beside the frozen frame, took one look, and knew it was Mary. She sat there looking mighty reverent, as if listening to the preacher's sermon on Sunday morning. Back straight, knees bent, hands neatly folded in her lap. Her eyes milked over, like frost-covered panes of glass. Or maybe it was frost, after all. She was long past hearing any more Sunday-morning sermons; I could see that for a fact.
After Carl collected himself, he climbed up next to Mary from the other side. He held her and cried, and I found other things to look at. I did some thinking and figured all we could do was take her the rest of the way to Sundance and find Mr. Keats, the undertaker.
Working together, we pried her off the seat and lifted her down to the ground. It felt like toting fragile wooden rocking chair. Mary was frozen solid. She stayed just the way she'd been when we found her. We couldn't get her to lie down in the back of the buckboard so Carl sat her in the middle of the driver's seat.
"I don't know about this," I said. "Folks might find it strange."
Carl didn't say anything. He just sat down beside her in the most dignified manner he could muster. After a few moments of hesitation, I climbed up and settled in on her other side. I knew we wouldn't want her falling out. I gathered the reins and whistled. The horses began to move.
We left the wagon. I figured we'd fetch it later. For the time being, I focused on fulfilling what I saw as my obligation as a friend and neighbor. It was Christmas but this Mary didn't need a manger, she needed a casket.
It seemed like a long journey, with just him and me—and her between us. At last Sundance appeared on the horizon. I thought of the passersby that would watch us roll into town. I wondered if talk would spread through Sundance faster than we could get across it. Mr. Keats might even be waiting for us outside his funeral parlor. I felt a pang of sorrow for the dreadful way Mary would be presented to the townsfolk. We didn't even have a blanket to drape over her features like a death shroud.
Ironic that only last night she'd been in town for a night of fun and frivolity. I looked down at her shoes and wondered how well she'd danced in them. Had she laughed, spinning gaily while the twin fiddles played? One never knows the consequences of one's actions. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
I felt the eyes and heard the murmurs as the horses took us down the main street. Carl must have felt them too, but he never lowered his head. I had to admit I admired his steadfastness.
Mr. Keats was not outside to meet us as I had imagined. I wondered how to proceed. I thought one of us should remain in the wagon with Mary.
"What do you think we should do, Carl?" I asked.
He just gritted his teeth and lifted Mary out of the buckboard without a word. He draped her rigid body over his shoulder and staggered toward the funeral parlor door. Her frozen hair fell in a lump and obscured her face. I thanked the Lord for small blessings. I hurried ahead of Carl and pushed open the door. He carried her inside and sat her in the first available chair. Mr. Keats burst through a door at the back of the room and I nearly jumped out of my skin. He took a look at the situation and moved to Carl's side.
I figured Carl might want some privacy so I excused myself, went outside and rolled a smoke. As I savored the tobacco and my temporary respite from the situation, I could hear the two of them discussing the details of the funeral. Part of me kept waiting for Mary to speak up; she had never been shy about sharing her opinion as I recall. Just as I ground the cigarette butt into the snow with my heel, Mr. Keats called me back inside. Carl sat in another corner, looking numb. I remembered that the rest of the family didn't know yet, were still waiting for word. It would be a sorrowful, miserable Christmas for the Kerbaughs.
Say this for Keats: he wasted no time in starting preparations. He pointed out the wood stove. "The deceased needs to thaw before I can prepare her for burial," he said to me.
I dragged Mary's chair across the floor and placed her in front of the stove. Carl and Mr. Keats had moved to another room. I followed the undertaker's murmurs and joined them for a cup of black coffee. It warmed my insides and swept away the buzzing of my brain.
We decided that Carl would unhitch his horse and ride back home, securing the abandoned wagon along the way. He wanted to be the one to break the news to the rest of the family. I volunteered to stay behind to assist Mr. Keats in whatever small way I could.
Several hours passed, as did several cups of strong black coffee. Different groups of curious townsfolk had braved the cold to pause before the funeral parlor before moving on; Keats had locked up and drawn the blinds. An uncomfortable silence spun out and seemed to pile up between us. I kept glancing at the doorway to the room where Mary sat defrosting by the fire. At length, Mr. Keats excused himself and went out the back to use the privy.
A sound from the front room made me jump. I tiptoed across the floor and looked around the corner. There lay Mary, thawed out plenty. She'd slid from the chair. I walked over, put my hands under her arms and lifted her. I thought I heard water droplets or something wet pattering on the floor as I eased Mary back onto the chair. She slumped over sideways but stayed. That's when I saw it: a little one, just a mite bigger than my two fists put together. It slipped past her undergarments somehow. I reckon it'd dropped out when I lifted Mary up. Do you understand? She was with child. Mary was too young, if you ask me. Most folks would agree. She was going to have a baby, but didn't have a husband. I don't believe anyone had been courting Mary, either.
I doubt Carl knew; he'd have said something about it if he'd known her condition. And standing there in the funeral parlor, I got to thinking maybe he didn't need to know. Maybe it would make things worse. I didn't want Carl to have to decide on one coffin or two. What would his God-fearing wife Rachel say when she found out? What would the townsfolk say?
I remember the Virgin Mary in the Good Book. Christmas turned out to be a happy day for her. Then I thought about this Mary, who always sat at attention in church, always a good example to the other young people in the congregation. The children all looked up to her, and I recall seeing the two of you together often, chatting after the service. That's why this story has to be our secret. We need to protect and honor her memory. You understand that don't you, Henry?
Mr. Keats had told me there would be no wake and that he would keep the coffin locked in a special shed until the ground thawed enough for proper burial.
I made a hard decision.
You've been patient, Henry, listening to my story instead of running off with that package. Maybe I said a lot more than I should have. What you just grabbed from the buckboard is not a Christmas gift for you or your brother. It's more of a gift of sorts for Carl Kerbaugh and his wife. I took the little wooden box from Mr. Keats' funeral parlor while he used the privy. I wrapped it in burlap which I bought from Ed Mason over at the Mercantile on my way out of town. I need to put the whole thing somewhere safe and out of the way until spring.
I know you, your brother, and your ma are all chomping at the bit to start Christmas dinner and get to opening presents. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. You had an idea about me riding up in Santa's sleigh, but our wagon was serving as a hearse instead.
You look pale as milk, Henry. Maybe this wasn't a story I should have shared. Best to put it out of your head, son. Just hand that package back to me nice and easy… Henry, why are you crying?