“Wait, Littlejim. Please wait for me. I can’t keep up,” Nell panted as she ran down the hill.
But Littlejim took a runny-go and slid into the mud of the main road, the little wooden sled bouncing behind him.
Nell ran harder.
Finally, on the main road she hobbled up to the sled. One shoe was unbuttoned, and her shawl was falling around her neck.
The clip-clop of a horse’s hooves and the skur of buggy wheels sounded around the bend in the road. Preacher Hall’s big bay horse pulled the young minister’s new buggy.
“Whoa, there. Howdy, Littlejim. Howdy, Nell. Going to the store?” bellowed the hefty young man through his red beard. He tipped his black hat to Nell.
Nell hid her face behind her big brother’s sweater and peered around Littlejim’s shoulder. She was afraid of this giant of a man who preached hellfire and brimstone on Sunday, then laughed like thunder the rest of the week.
The minister leaned out of his seat and pinched Nell’s icy cheek. “How be ye today?” He gave the typical greeting of the Creek folk.
“Tolerable well,” replied Littlejim, completing the ritual.
“It was gladsome that Bigjim put away his Freewill beliefs and let you young’uns come to the Christmas tree this time. That prime laurel Ive Lusk staked up on Double Head for us might nigh filled up the church, didn’t it?” bellowed the big man. “For a spell I didn’t know just where we’d put the congregation. I told the deacons we might have to set the pews out in the churchyard.”
The preacher’s round stomach jostled up and down as he laughed at his joke. But Littlejim was serious. “It was a proud day for me,” said the boy. Littlejim was lost in thought. He remembered how good Christmas felt when he had helped Nell go to the Christmas tree. He remembered how proud Mama looked when he stood up to recite his verses. A smile crept across his face and turned into a wide grin. Then he frowned. “But you know Papa don’t hold with celebrating. He was a mite fussed about my recitation, especially in a church that won’t hold to his Freewill beliefs.”
“Bigjim sure takes his religion seriously for one who don’t practice it,” chuckled the parson. “I’ll stop by and tell him how proud he ought to be of his fine son next time I howdy him.”
“That’ud be mighty good of you, Preacher,” said Littlejim. “I wanted to go tolerable bad, and I was glad Nell here got to go, too.” He pulled his little sister around beside him, but protected her with his arm.
“Bigjim cuttin’ on the Bad Branch today, son?” he asked the boy.
“No, sir. Uncle Bob sent the crew to the Murphy Flat about sunup. He needed Papa’s team to snake the logs out today.”
“Trying to finish up that job by Saturday, I guess?” The preacher seemed to ask and answer his own questions at the same time. “Lumbering in this country finally beginning to pay off. Ever since Bob bought that Edgar circle saw and set up on the Lusk place.”
Littlejim thought they might be in for a sermon right there in the middle of the road from the way the preacher had started.
“Course, with the war on and all,” the preacher continued, “the army’s buying up every stick of timber a man can cut, I reckon.”
Preacher Hall slapped his huge knee. The horse pranced lightly to the side.
“Whoa, Job. Stand still. I want to jaw with these young’uns fer a spell. I reckon it’ll take Blue Ridge timber to whup the Kaiser, fer true, I guess.” He laughed at his own joke. Littlejim laughed, too. Nell stared at the big man with round eyes.
“Yes, sir,” he said. Littlejim shifted from one foot to the other. “I have a job, too.”
The parson frowned. “Bigjim’s not taking you into the woods again to do a man’s work, is he?”
“Your pa forgets that you ain’t a full-growed man yet. He puts too much on you. Besides, you ought to be in school. Osk tells me you’re his prize pupil,” said Preacher Hall.
“I am going to school. I help out afterwards and on Saturdays when Fayette’s down in his back. I’m the dust doodler,” Littlejim said proudly. “I make ten cents a day.”
“My, my,” said the preacher. “I’m mighty glad to hear that. Dust doodling is a lot better job fer a boy than snaking logs out of the woods with a team. Twelve years ain’t hardly old enough to take on a man’s work.”
A few snowflakes had begun to fall from the clear blue sky. Littlejim wondered where they came from. They clung to the horse’s mane.
“Looks like you’re headed to the store today,” observed Preacher Hall. “Sorry I ain’t going in your direction. You young’uns better hurry on now.”
“Yes, sir,” said Littlejim.
“Good day,” said the preacher, tipping his hat as his buggy moved away.
“We have to hurry, Littlejim,” said Nell, running ahead. “It’s snowing harder.”
“Wait on me,” her brother answered, the little sled following bumpety, bumpety on the road behind him.
They walked in silence. Littlejim’s chest seemed to swell as he saw the sunlight shimmer off the ice-glazed branches of the trees. The winter sky was painted a blue so bright it stung his eyes. Here and there a snowflake drifted down, when only moments before thick snow was falling. The boy was filled with gladness at the beauty of it all. He felt the way he had felt reciting his verses at the church. He began to run.
“I’ll feel that way again,” he shouted, jumping into the air and almost turning the sled over. He knew he would find a way.
He ran past Nell toward the River Road.
“Wait for me,” shouted Nell.