David always hung the Christmas tree lights in the Johnson household. It was a family tradition. The children were anxious, Julie was anxious. He’d gone into town to pick up milk and was late. In all the scurrying around getting ready for Christmas Eve dinner, Julie had forgotten it. There wouldn’t be a store open anywhere in Larksbury tomorrow, not even the gas station.
Julie stared out the window. With six inches of fresh snow on the ground and more expected overnight, she worried. Their old pickup was on its last legs. It needed transmission fluid practically every day now, and the four-wheel drive no longer worked. Their farm was located exactly ten miles from the heart of town. David should have been home an hour ago.
She took out the coloring books and started coloring with the children. Becky was three; Jeremy was five; two darling little freckled-faced red-headed kids. When Julie finally spotted the headlights of their truck coming up the drive, she did a double take. There was another set of headlights on its heels. Her parents used to come for Christmas Eve dinner, but they were both gone now. For a moment, she forgot that. She strained to see through the falling snow. It was another pickup truck, pulling a horse trailer. David motioned for the driver to park up close to the barn. Julie wiped the window pane with her sleeve, trying to recognize the young man when he got out of the truck, and then the young woman.
Jeremy piled onto the couch next to her. “Who’s that?”
“I don’t know,” Julie said, putting her arm around him.
David and the young couple trudged through the snow to the back of the horse trailer, the snow pelting their faces as they opened it and lowered the ramp. The young man disappeared inside.
Becky climbed up next to Jeremy. “It’s a pony! It’s a pony!”
Julie chuckled. Both children already had ponies. Besides this was a horse, a very large horse, heavily blanketed. David opened the barn doors and led the way inside. Julie glanced at Becky and Jeremy, and was debating whether to bundle them up and go out to investigate, when they heard a soft knock on the door. Jeremy got to it first, and flung it open. There stood the young woman, shivering.
Julie ushered her in. “Are you all right?”
“The truck has no heat,” the little waif said, teeth chattering. “The windows were frosting over. I kept trying to talk to keep it from freezing, my breath you know, but….”
Julie guided her to the hearth of the fireplace, where a rip-roaring fire crackled. “Here, sit down. I’ll get you some tea.”
The children crumpled onto the floor next to the woman. “Are you make believe?” Becky asked.
The woman smiled. “No, I’m for real. My n-n-n-name is Marie.” She looked at Julie. “I’m sorry, this being Christmas Eve and all. I don’t know what we would have done if your husband hadn’t offered us shelter.”
Shelter? Julie stared. Were they planning to stay the night? Where would she put them? The young woman must have read her thoughts. “I’m fine right here. John, my husband, will be too. We won’t be any bother, I promise you. It’s Maggie Mae we’re concerned about. She’s due to foal.”
“When?” Julie asked. Surely not tonight.
“Not for a couple of weeks, but….” She took the mug of tea in her gloved hands and took a sip. “Thank you. We’re not poor or anything, not really. We just don’t have any money.”
Julie laughed. “I know the feeling.”
David and the young woman’s husband came inside and dusted themselves off.
“The milk,” David said, handing the gallon jug to Julie and hugging the kids. “Do you know where that old heat lamp is?”
“Why?” Julie asked. “Is she…?”
“We’re not sure. She….”
“Ma’am,” John said, tipping his head.
“Hello,” Julie replied, reverting her attention quickly back to David. “It’s in the garage, over by the rakes. I don’t think the bulb still works though.”
David headed back outside with John right behind him. Julie busied herself with setting the table. She’d made chili for dinner, and as usual, made a big batch for freezing some. There would be plenty. Becky and Jeremy entertained the young woman, who by now was warming up and peeling off her gloves, then her scarf and coat, and then one of two sweaters she was wearing.
When the men returned – yes, they were in luck, the lamp worked. Julie gave them each a mug of strong coffee and when they’d warmed enough, motioned for everyone to sit down and eat. It was going to be a long night. The mare was waxing up and restless; warm now, but restless. Julie looked across the table at her husband, the kindest man she’d every known. Their eyes met for a second and he smiled.
“So, where ya’ll going, and where are you from?” he asked, after he’d said grace and they’d all started eating. These details weren’t all that significant when he’d encountered them in town, John beside himself with worry trying to find a place to stay, and Marie in tears.
“I know the place,” John said, passing the cornbread and then the pitcher of milk. “I’ve been there. It’s a right nice town.”
John and Marie squeezed one another’s hands. “We’re hoping so.”
Outside it began to snow even harder, big white flakes that swirled and whirled in the howling wind. David said he’d check out their truck in the morning and see if he could fix it. “I’ve got truck parts everywhere,” he added, laughing when Julie nodded in agreement.
“I think you’ll be comfortable in the kid’s room,” Julie said. “The kids can sleep with us.”
“Yeah!!! Yippee!!” Jeremy and Becky shouted! “Yippee!”
“Well, we wouldn’t want to disappoint the children,” Marie said, accepting the offer with tears welling up in her eyes. Both couples had lifetimes to share. Conversation flowed easy. When the meal was finished, Marie helped Julie clean up, and David and John went back out to the barn to check on the mare. David returned a few minutes later.
“Ya’ll might want to come out,” he said. “The kids, too. She’s got her a healthy foal. It’s a little colt.” They all bundled up, filled with anticipation and trudged out into the snow. Soon they were all gathered around the mare’s stall and watched as the tiny babe nursed hungrily, tail swishing.
“I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if we hadn’t found shelter….” John’s voice cracked. “She’d have been in that trailer, and….”
“Shhh,” Julie said. “Everything is fine. Look how beautiful he is.”
John put his arm around his wife Marie, as above the barn, a star shined bright.