The Gifts

R. D. McKaig ©

December 15, 1995

Winter always brought magic to the Northwest Territory. It was a somber time in some respects, with the gray skies always threatening to blanket the forest in snow that would occasionally be whipped by chilly winds. Sunshine was scarce and sweet, and every living thing not in hibernation struggled to capture a piece of each ray that the sun would give up. Days were short, nights were always too long and cold, and spring seemed worlds away most of the time. The one bright and magical spot in a long cold winter was Christmas, with the sleigh rides and the radiant lights at church and all the wonderful food that the ladies would create. But this Christmas wasnít shaping up to be very bright or magical to Jenny.

Jennyís little world revolved around her family: six brothers and sisters, all older than she, and her parents, loving, hard working people who had settled in this forest after a disappointing run at the gold rush of Ď49. They had carved out a comfortable existence in concert with the rest of the community, her father working with the logging companies and her mother tending the newly finished cabin and barns that had been nestled in a clearing in the forest. Neighbors had helped raise the buildings and plow up a garden, themselves having had to do the same thing in seasons past, and those same neighbors also shared the long winter evenings around each otherís fireplaces with old songs sung to the accompaniment of a mouth harp and an old squeeze box. Once in a while a fiddle would be brought out of a travelerís pack and a celebration of life was held.

Jenny usually loved these times that broke the routine of dull winter life. But lately everything that held promise and joy for her had been taken away. In all her six years she had never been so miserable. It was her job to tend the chickens, and she had a special place in her heart for one big gray-blue hen. But a few nights ago the hen had gotten locked out of the pen accidentally and a fox had taken her off for his supper. Jenny had been heartbroken. To make matters worse, the family had lost its favorite hound to the winter cough. She had been an ugly thing, but all the kids had loved her. Her newborn litter of pups had to be put to death because there was no mother to feed them. Jenny had begged and pleaded with her father who had finally allowed her to keep one little pup. He was sure it wouldnít survive but he had relented anyway. To his surprise the little girl had nursed the pup through the first few days and he had grown quite rapidly.

But now, just a few weeks later, the pup had disappeared sometime during the day. And Jenny was worried sick. If that wasnít enough to ruin a little girlís day, her brother Kenneth, just a year older, had taken her favorite doll, named Alice after a precious aunt, and hidden it somewhere out in the snow. Jenny had searched all day for pup and doll until her mittens were sodden and her feet were frozen inside the second hand boots she wore. And now she herself was coming down with the winter cough, causing great distress to her parents. Even now, in her bed in the loft, she could hear her mother giving Kenneth a piece of her mind. Serves him right, Jenny thought. He threw poor Alice out in the snow, and now Iím sick because of it. It was a small comfort to Jennyís misery.

As the evening wore on Mother came to check on her and decided that she could come down to the main room for some holiday cheer. It was Christmas Eve and some of the neighbors had hitched a wagon and come over for a social call. Mother had brought out a batch of sweet breads and cookies she had made the day before, and Father was opening a jug of cider made from the windfall apples of late summer. Jenny was propped up a little to the side of the big stone fireplace that formed the main structure of the cabin. It was a freestanding fireplace that served both the main front room of the cabin and the back kitchen area. Jenny could see into both rooms from her perch on one side. She politely greeted the newcomers and nibbled on some of her motherís cranberry sweet bread, sipping from time to time from a cup of warm cider that Father had given her. Her mind was still on Alice, and the puppy. She had named him Pinecone because of his color and the roundness of his little belly with its tufts of fur poking out. In time he would have become just like his parents, both gangly long legged hounds of indeterminate origin. But for now he was, or had been, quite cuddly and plump. Jenny sighed. If only she could go out and find Pinecone and Alice. Would it be possible?

Just then the door opened and the Svens from down the road entered the room. They were a jolly old couple, both white haired and plump, and they took great pleasure in their obvious resemblance to Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. The children were all excited at first, getting into the spirit of the evening with the Jolly Old Gent. They sat on his lap one by one and told him of their wishes. Then as a group they drug him over to the freshly cut spruce in the corner to make him help them decorate it. Jenny watched with detachment, not really noticing the paper snowflakes and pin wheels that the children had made the day before, the strings of cranberries and popped field corn that Mr. Sven was helping to wrap around the tree. She looked but really didnít see the oddly shaped packages under the tree that were wrapped in scraps of cloth from her motherís sewing basket and tied with string. One for each child, that was the normal routine, and usually all that her parents could afford. The one in the pretty blue velvet from her sisterís new dress was hers, Jenny knew. It was customary for children to get a gift on their birthday as well, but since Jennyís birthday was the day after Christmas she never got a second gift. Her parents did try however to make her Christmas gift just a bit bigger than those for the other children. That was another reason Father had relented with the puppy. And now he was gone. Poor Pinecone, Jenny thought, and the idea of searching for the puppy herself presented itself in her mind again. Could she do it?

Jenny rose out of her chair unnoticed and went to the kitchen portion of the cabin. She looked out the crack in the shuttered window, confirming to herself that there was a full moon out this night. It was calm, no wind, and the snow looked like mounds of whipping cream in the yards between the cabin and the barns. The animals were all in their mangers and each had been given an extra measure of grain and hay this evening. After all it was Christmas. Jenny had fed her chickens an extra cup of grain as well. She glanced back at the festivities in the other room and seemed to make a decision. Yes, she could do it. And she would do it. She gulped down the last of the cider in her cup and made her way back up to her loft bed. Mother didnít even notice with all the people in the room.

In the loft Jenny began to pull clothing from the old wardrobe that served the girls. She would wear a second pair of socks from her sister Lydia, and a flannel gown under her dress would add extra warmth. She dressed under her covers to keep from drawing any extra attention. Downstairs she shifted slowly from the main room to the kitchen area where the outer garments were hanging on pegs at the door. Mollyís coat would be good; it was the closest in size to Jennyís own that was still drying out. Kenneth wouldnít notice his barn boots missing, she could wear those. And Sarahís mittens tucked inside Motherís would do. Josephís scarf wrapped over and around Johnís old felt hat. That should do it. Quietly Jenny dressed in her collection of garments and slipped out the back door. If they were going to miss her it would be then, but no one noticed the creak of the old door or the slight rush of cold air. The lack of wind was on Jennyís side this time.

Outside the back door the world made a mysterious change. The moon, full and white, shone on the snow and the buildings giving the illusion of a strange netherworld, something from a storybook. All was still and calm. She glanced up at the stars and wondered if she would ever be old enough to count them all. No matter just now, she had to find Pinecone. And if she stumbled upon Alice in the process, so much the better. Jenny hurried across the choppy snow in the yard where she had searched that afternoon for her doll, through the gate and across the wagon track that ran beside the house. In a few moments she was at the edge of the forest. Only a secondís hesitation before she gathered her courage and plunged into the thick stand of trees.

Jenny followed a well-worn track through the woods that her father and her older brothers took each morning and night to and from the logging grounds. She was cold, but not so much that she was willing to abandon the search. Instead, she hurried. Soon the track turned, branching off into several small tracks leading to different stands of trees. This was very unfamiliar and Jenny was unsure which one to take when she noticed a small set of prints. She studied them closely. Pinecone? she thought, or was it some other small forest creature? They looked like a puppyís tracks, and with a decisive nod Jenny convinced herself that they were Pineconeís. Happily she plunged into undisturbed snow to follow the trail.

As she walked along she tried to think of all the wonderful things she would do for her puppy when he got home. She would scavenge a chunk of tomorrowís goose dinner for his main meal, and a few spoonfuls of her motherís gravy on the top with some home baked bread would fill his little belly. That would make up for the whole day and half the night out in the woods. Her thoughts were making her hungry, and her own tummy growled with the thought of sweet breads and cookies with cider still waiting for her at the cabin. She tripped on a low tree root, and when she straightened up Jenny realized that she didnít know where she was. She didnít recognize any of the trees in this part of the forest. She was getting colder, her feet especially. Kennethís barn boots leaked, now she remembered, and her feet were slowly getting wet. When she turned around to find her tracks back, Jenny realized that the moon wasnít shining in this part of the forest anymore. It wasnít shining at all. The clouds had moved in and covered the moon and the stars. As she watched it began to snow, lightly at first, then heavier. Soon Jennyís face was wet with snowflakes, and a few tears as she began to get scared. She ran wildly, first this way and that, trying to pick up her trail out of the forest. But it was no use. She was lost, just as lost as Alice and Pinecone were!

Jenny didnít know how long she had been walking, but now she didnít feel the cold anymore. She wasnít aware of the wet snow that covered her head and shoulders, and she paid no attention to her sodden feet where the boots had leaked. She was getting tired, though, and a nap would be nice. And the cough, the winter cough she had forgotten in her zeal to find her friends had returned. Jenny came to a large boulder nestled up against a tree and decided that was a good place to take a nap. Slowly she began to sink to the ground when a sound aroused her from her stupor. A dog? No, it was a growl much larger than a dog. Many dogs? No, just one big dog. Not even a dog. She turned to see what had disturbed her nap and was quickly jolted to total awareness.

Standing, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four, not twenty feet from her was a bear! It was a forest bear, Jenny knew from the stories her father had told her about them. This one was black, or was it brown? She couldnít tell in the snow and the dark. But he was certainly big, bigger than her, and he was mad! He was growling at her! Oh, no! Mother and Father will be so mad at me if I get myself eaten by a bear! was the thought that circled Jennyís head. The bear stayed in his spot and growled again, a low growl that almost sounded indecisive. He swung his huge head from side to side, and when he opened his jaws Jenny was sure she could see clear down his throat to his tail! She opened her mouth to scream but no sound would come out. Only the hacking cough of her sickness. This was horrible! What was she going to do?

The bear took a step forward and stopped, cocking his head to one side as if to listen. Jenny heard an almost imperceptible sound, an answering growl that made the bear turn his head to look. Off to the right side of the bear stood a shadow. She couldnít see what it was until it moved closer, then she thought she saw a dog. No, again no dog. It moved closer still and growled again, a soft inquiry of a growl, and Jenny knew instantly that it was a wolf. Oh, oh, no! Now she was going to be eaten by both of them!

But this wolf didnít seem to be interested in Jenny, only in itís conversation with the bear. Every time it took a step forward toward the bear it growled softly, and the bear would answer just as politely and step backward. This continued, a pace at a time, until the wolf was standing directly between Jenny and the bear with his back to Jenny. She studied him now, wondering at her fate and curious as to what would make a wolf act in this manner. All the stories her father had told her about wolves indicated that they would eat little children just like chickens if they got the chance, and that she was doomed if she ever faced one. Yet here she stood, alone in the woods with just this wolf and a bear, and the wolf was, she seemed to think, trying to help her.

He was nearly white, some flecks of black on the tips of his ears and his tail, and he was big, larger than any of the hounds at the cabin. Jenny absently wondered if she had been missed yet and if her parents would send the hounds to find her. She hoped this wolf wouldnít kill them, and that her father wouldnít kill him. He seemed like a nice wolf, if that was possible.

The wolf now took a step toward the bear, which obligingly stepped back a pace or two. Another soft growl was heard, and then another, and shortly two other wolves came into view, one on each side of the bear. They were of a darker color than the first, one a mixture of colors and the other almost black. Slowly they joined their companion in the middle, crossing behind him as they entered the area. The bear seemed to look from one to the other and back up a pace or two again. The three stood in a row in front of Jenny, within handís reach if she tried, and faced the bear. Time stood still. Jenny suddenly realized how cold she was and allowed her teeth to chatter. The spell broke and the bear growled one last time, loud and defiant, and then turned on his heel and was gone. Jenny breathed a sigh of relief. But now what was her fate? She was alone with three forest wolves that liked to eat little children, didnít they?

The wolves turned around slowly to her and, astonishingly, sat down. The first wolf eyed her up and down, turned first to one of his companions and then to the other, then rose to his feet. He slowly moved off to Jennyís right a few paces and then forward toward her boulder. She moved away from him. He stopped, then moved again, and she moved away. As she did so she realized that the other two wolves had turned their backs to her to retreat into the forest. But they didnít go quickly. Instead they stopped a few paces away to watch their brother as he attempted to get Jenny to move. It was slow going because the little girl didnít want to get too close to any of the animals. But they clearly intended for her to go with them, she thought. And after a few hesitant starts she gave in and simply began to follow the two wolves in front. When she turned her back on the lone white wolf he circled around to the left and appeared in front of the procession, assuming his place in the lead. She stumbled along behind them in a stupor, the cold having claimed her consciousness once again. Jenny didnít feel the cold, and she wasnít feeling any fear either. She was simply following along.

Shortly the wolves stopped at a close growing stand of spruce trees, their branches so low that they lay on the ground like lush green skirts. The black wolf slipped behind a branch and disappeared, then poked his head out for a moment before retreating again into the branches. The second wolf did the same, eyeing Jenny for a moment before he also disappeared. Jenny looked around and discovered that the white wolf was again behind her and was moving slowly in her direction. Well, she thought, she had followed them this far, what further harm would come to her behind a tree? She was going to be eaten anyway so it didnít make any difference to her where the meal took place. Parting the branches with her hands she slipped in.

What she saw caused Jenny to open her eyes and mouth in amazement. Inside the branches of the spruce trees was a small clearing, no more than six or eight feet across. The moon was again out from behind the clouds, and it shone like a beacon through the branches illuminating the entire area. And there on the far side of the clearing was Alice! Jenny was astonished beyond words. She looked behind her at the white wolf that had followed her in. He was sitting at the edge of the clearing within armís reach of Jennyís skirt, just watching his little human charge. Jenny turned back to look at Alice. This was a dream! Alice was all right! And she was crying!

Crying? Alice couldnít cry! That wasnít crying, that was whimpering. A puppyís whimpering! Pinecone! The black wolf stepped to the side of the area to reveal a fourth wolf, a female on a bed of needles and branches, with a small litter of pups. And there in the middle, actually suckling at the mother with all her other pups, was Pinecone. Jenny just couldnít believe what she was seeing. How could this happen? Wolves ate people, didnít they? She knew bears did. But on this evening she had avoided becoming dinner for a bear by being saved by three wolves. And her precious Alice had been brought here by the wolves, she assumed, as a gift for their babies? Was that possible? And her own Pinecone, thought to be lost and starving and freezing to death had actually been rescued by these same wolves and taken in as one of their own. Could that happen? She shook her head, and suddenly very tired, Jenny sank to her knees right there in the middle of the clearing. It was a dream, it had to be a dream, these things just didnít happen!

If Jenny had been thinking clearer she would have noticed the similarities to the bible stories her teacher told at church on Sundays, the resemblance to the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus in the manger and of the gifts they brought to him. But she was dreary, disoriented, and she needed sleep. She would nap here. The wolves wouldnít mind. They were already settling down themselves for a nap, the white one so close she could lay her head on his side. She would leave them alone as soon as Pinecone was done with his supper. Jenny nodded, forgot her fear and snuggled down close to the white wolf. Moments later she was sleeping soundly.

When she opened her eyes she was staring straight into a face with a full white beard and small round spectacles. There was a hat on the face, red with a white tip, and a red coat. Jenny jumped up with a start. "Santa Clause! Youíre here!"

"I found her!" the face yelled. "No, Jenny, it is I, Mr. Sven. We have been searching for you all night, little one. What has happened to you?" Mr. Sven was gathering Jenny into his arms and trying to wrap her into a blanket he had been carrying under his arm. In a moment, Father appeared around the branch and reached for Jenny.

"Jenny, honey, what happened to you? We thought you were gone for sure! What did you think you were doing going out into the woods like that? You know better than that!" Father was asking questions and giving his own answers at the same time, a sure sign that he had been worried about her. Jenny tried to explain.

"I had to find Pinecone and Alice, Father, I just had to! And I got lost, and I almost got eaten by a bear, and three wolves found me and brought me here, and. . . and . . ." Jenny looked around the clearing to see that the wolves, even the female and her litter, were gone. The clearing was empty, the ground undisturbed. She began to sob. "They were right here, Father, honest!"

"Thatís enough, child. Sheís been out here too long. We had better get her home." Father was hurrying out of the trees into the bright sunshine of Christmas morning with Jenny in his arms when she suddenly screamed. He jumped. "What is it, child, whatís the matter?"

"Alice, and Pinecone, youíre leaving them behind!" Jenny was almost to the point of hysteria. She had come through so much, spending the night in the woods with wolves and a bear, that she wasnít going to allow her rescuers, her second set of rescuers, to abandon her prize possessions! "I wonít go home without them!" Her little jaw was set!

"Here you are child, hereís your dolly." Mr. Sven handed Alice to her, and she took her thankfully. But Pinecone?

"Father, whereís Pinecone? He was here last night, where is he now?"

"Heís still here, Jenny." Joseph, her older brother brought the pup up to her. Her other brother John was standing just behind him. Joseph put the puppy in Jennyís arms and explained. "Pinecone was standing out in the middle of the snow here and howling at the sun when we came up the trail. Heís the one who led us to you."

"And the wolves? Father, did you see the wolves?"

Father looked a bit sheepish. "We saw three of them running away, Jenny, and we thought we should shoot them, but Pinecone was standing here yelping so loudly that we just had to see what the trouble was." He smiled for a moment. "If those wolves helped you out last night, then I owe them each a chicken or two." But with a sobering look at his daughter, Father added, "But I donít want to get into the habit of feeding the wolves, you understand?"

Jenny nodded, and the other men in the search party murmured their agreement. As the party headed home along the trail Jenny pleaded and was allowed to walk on her own. She had regained much of her strength through the night, but she was still a bit shaky, and was pleased to see that she had only been a few hundred yards into the forest from the wagon track when she was found. Mother was waiting at the door with tears in her eyes and a big hug when Jenny came across the yard with Pinecone happily running ahead of her.

That afternoon Jenny put a chunk of the Christmas goose and some gravy and bread in Pineconeís bowl, just as she had promised. The little puppy chewed happily on his treat and lapped at the gravy with great zeal. It was the second best meal he had had since his own mother had passed away. Jenny sat at the head of the table this time with Alice in her lap. Each of her sisters and brothers had voiced a real concern and relief at her return. Even Kenneth, who was looking properly chastised for having been partly to blame for this whole mess. Jennyís use of their clothing was forgiven, although Molly couldnít understand all the strange dog hair on her coat. They didnít have a white dog with such long hair at their little cabin, so where did all this come from? Jenny had tried to explain after dinner but was soon whisked off to bed by Mother. She still had a fever and a cough, and that was blamed for her supposed delirium.

That night in her bed Jenny tried to sort it all out in her head, but it was just too much for one little girl to comprehend. All she knew for sure was that she had Alice back, and Pinecone was snoozing peacefully at her side, and she was at home in her own bed in the loft, warm and dry and safe. As an afterthought she rose up on her elbow and tried to look out through the crack in the shutter toward the woods.

The moon was shining on the snow just as it did last night. And the stars were out, too. The snow had fallen fresh that afternoon and there hadnít been any tracks to mar the surface. But something was moving on the other side of the wagon track. In the woods, just beyond the first line of trees, . . . was it . . . there! A wolf, no, two, now three wolves stepped out of the woods and walked along the track in formation. Silently they moved toward the west a few paces. Then they stopped, and the white one looked at the cabin. He looked at the window in the loft, into Jennyís hidden eyes. There was a knowing look in his eyes, a look that told Jenny to be careful in the future. She would, she knew, because she had been given great gifts by these creatures. She would be wiser, and more thankful in the future thanks to them.

The white wolf turned away and moved on. . Merry Christmas, she wished the wolves. It would be a long time before Jenny slept that night, and when she did, her dreams were silent and serene, with images of Peace on Earth.

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