Stories From The Driftless
By Mike Byrne –
A few more steps and I was out in the fields behind the farm buildings. Now I knew how bad the wind had become. It blew the snow so hard it stung my cheeks. I bent my head down, turned up my collar and trudged through the snow. It was already about five inches deep on the level ground, but drifts were much higher. When I stepped into one it went over my big army surplus boots, the snow packed into them and down to my ankles instantly. I regretted not wearing better gear for the journey. Several times I tried to skirt a drift, changing course to do so. Once I backtracked and plunged through because I knew it was the only way.
I began to regret the journey altogether …
I became so frustrated at these issues I forgot where I was going. When I came to the edge of the woods, nothing looked familiar. How could this be so strange? Where was the path? Turning to the west I strained to see the silhouette of the farm buildings, but in the darkness there was nothing but blinding snow. And even the snow seemed confused. It was blowing in all directions, swirling and whipping me, penetrating around my neck and forcing its way in and around my gloves. My eyebrows held onto it. My mind began to leap ahead into some awful scenarios. Go back, it told me, you still can.
But the wind had something to say about that idea. Facing into it I heard it proclaim that it was too late. This wind was from Canada, and it stretched back a thousand miles. Every step into it would be a battle. Hearing the quiet of the deep woods in my mind, and the sound of snow on the lingering oak leaves, I realized it would get easier downhill out of the wind. I turned back east and plunged down over the bank. Not knowing where I was, I told myself it would be obvious at the bottom. I felt my penlight in my pocket, and laughed at myself for not getting new batteries in it.
And then it happened so fast that there wasn’t even a chance to worry about how to handle it. I stepped off some edge and fell sharply through raspberry canes and under story bushes, pitching forward into a small tree. It knocked the breath out of me. Now a grim reality loomed large. My penlight had disappeared and so had one boot and one glove. Refusing to panic, groping around me I found the glove, then the boot. Sitting in the snow putting on the boot, another cruel realization came to me. My ankle was badly twisted.
There was a kind of silence in those woods all around me, but it was punctuated by my own heart pounding in my chest, and a voice in my head saying, Now you had better make smart choices from here on out or you might not live to see the other side of Christmas!
I decided to dig in right where I was. Scratching and clawing snow and leaves, I struggled to cover myself up as best I could and wait for daylight. I figured in the morning at least I could beeline it home. Hours passed, or so it seemed, but warmth never really came to soothe me. Suddenly I realized that sleepiness was the enemy. I knew you should never let yourself fall asleep when the danger of freezing was present.
To fight sleep I began to dwell on all the mistakes I had made leading up to this event. Of course there were many. Somewhere between choosing to major in history in college and not selecting a Florida college in the first place, I realized the snow had stopped abruptly. And the wind had abated. As the clouds moved away a deeper chill settled into my bones. I prayed for a moon to help me see, but there was none. The waiting was very hard to endure, and as my ankle stopped hurting the threat of frostbite concerned me.
It occurred to me that the Amish get up early to milk the cows, but would that be true on Christmas Day? Again the voice in my head began to counsel me. It begged me to call for help. I just couldn’t convince myself that anyone could hear. No other houses were as close as the Amish, and they were fast asleep…except for one three-legged dog, perhaps? I decided to try. I twisted around to what I thought was West. Summoning all the voice I ever had, reaching deep in my soul for another decibel, I bellowed, “LOOKOUT!”
I bellowed once more. This time I knew he heard me because he really lit up. He was pretty crippled as far as the snow was concerned. But he was sounding the alarm!
In the Amish house a candle was lit, and a window opened, and a voice yelled out the window, “Keep Quiet!” But Lookout wouldn’t shut up. He left the warmth of the hay-pile and limped through the snow. He went across the field until he hit a big snowdrift. He could not get past that drift. Returning to the house, he barked again. And the window opened, and a voice commanded, “KEEP QUIET!”
The poor little dog was beside himself. What could be done? At last he hit upon a plan. He turned to his old friend, loyal all that year, a friend who had the power to get through the snow…Lookout appealed to the old sow. He barked at her, he growled, probably even bit her feet to get her to move. She grunted and stood up. He forced her out into the pen. She stood there and shook off the sleep, wondering if this was a coyote alert. Tiny hated coyote.
Meanwhile, down in the woods, I was not hearing Lookout anymore. So I yelled again a few times. Lookout answered. And Tiny grunted.
Lookout grabbed her front leg and tugged. Tiny understood. She reared back a bit, and lunged at the gate she’d never dared to challenge before. With a loud crash the wood splintered and melted away in the face of her massive weight. She crossed the field like a great snowplow, and the three-legged rescuer tried to stay with her to walk where she made the path, baying all the way. In the Amish house a lantern was lit. Someone came downstairs. Soon they came outside carrying the lantern.
I heard the baying getting closer. I knew they were coming to find me. I cried, I laughed, I yelled and struggled to my feet. That little big-mouthed pup had saved the day! Soon the pig came crashing through the underbrush like a Sherman tank, and a few moments later Lookout burst upon the scene baying and barking and carrying on like only an excited Beagle can. I scooped him up in my arms, stuffed him in my coat, all the while whining and nibbling my chin.
Then I heard yelling up above me, and a lantern glowed in the darkness. It was Jake, and he soon made it down to help me. He walked and finally carried me back up to their house. When we entered the kitchen, all the kids were up. In the lantern light their faces were warm and glowing, and Jake said, “Now get Santa Claus a chair, he fell off the roof trying to get down the chimney!”
After a while, they let Lookout in and he fell asleep in my lap as I sat by the fire. For the dog and me, the circle had become complete. It was the best Christmas I’d ever had.