MR. SCHUSTER’S CHRISTMAS
One winter when I was young, Mother had me do some chores for an old man that lived near us. Every night after school, I had to haul drinking water into his house and carry enough wood to last through the night. I hated that old man! Because of him, I couldn’t spend time riding or hunting after school with my friends and worst of all, Abraham Schuster was the orneryiest man I ever knew.
I’ll tell you this much, that old man was bitter as gall. No matter how I tried, I could not satisfy him. If I took in two arm loads of kindling, it was too much. One load would not do either, he would say that I was slacking off. And he always thought I was putting something in his drinking water. He would always say, ” What did ya put in the water boy?”. He would never believe anything I’d say. I was real careful hauling water because Mother said dirty water would make a person sick.
The only thing that old man Schuster cared for was a heavy bay mare that was in the pasture next to the creek. Every day, Mr. Schuster would put on the darndest mixture of sweaters over his overalls and go out to feed the mare. He was awfully feeble and it took a real effort to get the hay over the fence to the mare, but he did it every day.
That mare had a colt late in the year, about the beginning of December. It had a beautiful deep brown color just like her mother. The only time I ever saw Mr. Schuster smile was the evening Dad went over to help him put a halter on the colt. Dad caught the colt and pulled him over to the old man. The colt’s eyes were wide with fear. When Mr. Schuster pulled off his mitten and touched the white nose of the colt, I swear he smiled. His rotten and broken teeth showed though his chapped lips and the white stubble of his whiskers. We must have spent ten minutes standing there watching the old man pet that colt. Dad had chores to do, but he didn’t say anything.
As soon as Dad left, Mr. Schuster gave me a scolding because the kindling box was only half-full. Yep, things were back to normal. You know I even talked to Mother about Mr. Schuster and told her how he had been treating me. She went right into her church spiel and did not hear a thing I said after that. She said I would be blessed for what I was doing. Now that struck me as something, I was getting blessed for being cursed. By the time the lecture ended; I was sure that if the old man killed me, I would end up a saint.
One Saturday morning after chores, I decided to go over to Mr. Schusters and look at the colt. The morning was brisk and cold. the icy mist was rising off the creek and the frost was beginning to drip from the barn roof. The colt was frisky, it bucked and jumped only to stagger each time to catch itself. Well, I got caught up in the youthful celebration of that colt. I crossed the fence and played chase with the little fella for several minutes. The party broke up when Mr. Schuster shouted my name from the other side of the fence. “Bob” he shouted angrily, “get away from that colt.” I stopped and slowly climbed the fence. “I’m sorry,” I said stepping down. “You sure are!”, he growled. “Get yourself home and never come back!” Well, I was in a real fix. If I explained the story to Dad and Mother, they would throw a hissy fit for bothering the old man, you can be sure of that. On the other hand, they’d be expecting me to be hauling water and wood every day if I didn’t After much considering, I decided to work over at Mr. Schusters whether he liked it or not. That was surely better than undergoing the wrath of the folks.
Things went pretty well for a few days. I’d sneak in Mr. Schuster’s house with a load of wood and grab the water bucket on the way out. Mr. Schuster was generally asleep in his chair near the fire about this time of evening. He was awake once, but just told me to get away and go home.
Now, I was noticing some things during this time. Even though it was nearly Christmas and getting colder, the old man was using less wood. The other thing I saw was the amount of hay that Mr. Schuster was dropping before he got it to the fence. The old mare was fighting the fence pretty good trying to get to the fallen hay. So, my last act before leaving each night was to throw more hay over to the mare and colt, then run for the house.
On the last school day before Christmas, we had a big party at school. It was cold enough outside to make ice cream to go with the frosted cookies. Sara Louise Henderson had chosen me to be her partner in the taffy pull. My life at that moment felt complete. Soon, we would be rubbing butter all over each other’s hands, preparing to twist and pull that taffy stuff until it was stiff and ready. Just as we were about to start, Mother entered the building and started talking to my teacher. I walked over to see what was going on.
” Why didn’t you tell me that Mr. Schuster was doing so poorly?”, she said angrily. ” Get your coat.” She pushed me to the cloak closet and the last thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was Sara Louise Henderson buttering down with Jimmy Murphy.
Dad and the doctor were already in the house when Mother and I arrived at Mr. Schusters. Dad was washing up around Mr, Schuster’s chair and the doctor was in the bedroom with Mr. Schuster. As I got over to where Dad was working, he looked up and spoke very quietly to me. ” I don’t know what’s been going on over here, but Abraham’s got pneumonia from this cold house. You been getting him plenty of wood?”.
” Yes sir, I have.”, I said wide-eyed at the turn of events. One minute, I’m about to have a Christmas party with Sara and the next moment I was the cause of Mr. Schuster’s pneumonia.
The rest of the day church people came by with food and good wishes for Mr. Schuster. I swear each of them looked at me with evil thoughts. That sick old man had ruined my reputation with the congregation by catching pneumonia. The events seemed to make it out that it was my fault.
I did something that day that I have never done since. I wished the worst for that old man. It was like an angry prayer that was said without thinking.
The next morning, Mother told me that Mr. Schuster had died. She said he had some disease that slowly stole away his health and the pneumonia had done him in. About half-way through my chores, I broke down, wailing and sniffling. The old man had been mean and ornery, and even his death was a bit of meanness toward me.
The next day was Christmas eve. While the other kids were sporting around in their horse-drawn sleighs, I wandered over to Mr. Schuster’s house to watch some of his people gather up his belongings. Out at the corral, a man had caught the mare and tied the rope off on his saddle horn, pulling the mare out of the corral. As they led her away, the little dark brown colt followed, spooking at everything that moved.
Even though I tried to help, the people were as cold as the tired old wood stove inside the house. As I walked back towards our farm, I concluded that this was an unmercifully poor Christmas season. I snuck into the house and would not have been noticed anyway since Uncle Bert and Aunt Martha had just arrived to spend the night with us. They did not have any children of their own and didn’t usually give me the time of day. As it was, I ended up spending the evening listening to Uncle Bert’s boring stories about work at the hardware store. Even though it was Christmas eve, I was tired and fell asleep in my chair.
When I awoke the next morning, Mother had turkey roasting in the oven and was kneading dough on the floury kitchen table.
” Merry Christmas Son,” she said, obviously more in the spirit of the day than I.
I muttered, ” Good morning,” and set about lacing up my boots.
Mother wiped her hands, ” I’ll call your father. He is out doing chores. We’ll open our gifts when he gets in. Bert and Martha are up and nearly ready.”
No one can deny that I received some fine gifts that Christmas. Uncle Bert and Aunt Martha gave me a fine fold-up knife from the hardware store. My folks gave me a pocket watch and a pair of winter gloves. The gloves were especially welcome and appreciated. Feeling much better about Christmas, I stole a piece of peanut brittle that Aunt Martha had brought and went out the door to feed the animals in my new gloves.
I took warm water to the pigs and entered the barn for their grain. I heard a commotion in one of the stalls. Dad must have left the milk cow in after milking her. I returned to the grain bin only to hear the milk cow jumping in her stall. Worried, I peered into the stall. To my surprise, Mr. Schuster’s mare and colt were looking back at me.
” Mr. Schuster’s son brought them over this morning,” said Dad standing at the entrance to the barn with Mother, Uncle Bert and Aunt Martha. ” Just before Mr. Schuster died, he told his son that you were feeding his mare without permission.”
” They were starving, Dad.” I said trying to defend myself.
” Mr. Schuster told his son that too.” said Dad as everyone joined me. ” In fact the last thing Mr Schuster said before he died was that he wanted you to have the mare and colt.
” Son, you took on a miserable job trying to help that old man and you did the best you could. We’re proud of you.
Looking back, the best gift I received that Christmas was not the mare and colt, but the promise that all men deserve to be judged in the spirit of kindness and love…