Sunday, December 23, 2018

Excerpt from The Coalwood Way - A Christmas Miracle begins...

Homer Hickam

Chapter 31

A Page from Jeremiah

     I woke on the couch. It was morning. I remembered bringing Dad home and Mom gathering him in. "Good Lord, Homer," she said and then walked him upstairs. Quentin was asleep in my bed, Daisy Mae curled up between his legs. I retreated to the couch.
I'd had a nightmare. I had dreamed I was asleep and all around me was turmoil, things breaking, curses, and then a huge crash. I looked around and, in the light of the early dawn filtering through the living room windows, I saw that the Christmas tree was inside, more or less erect in its stand. It was tilting at an odd angle but it was there.           Then I noticed Jim was sitting across from me on Dad's footstool. Billy Rose was also there, in a chair beside the tree. I thought I was still dreaming. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, both boys were still there. "What?" I demanded.
     "Look," Jim said and showed me his finger.
     I found my glasses. Jim's finger tip was bloody. It looked as if he'd been bitten by a snake. "What happened?"
     "I just wanted a Christmas tree," he said. "So I figured I would go ahead and put it up on my own. I got out this morning and saw Billy walking down the road."
     Billy said, "I was coming to your house, anyway. I thought maybe I could shovel snow or do some kind of chore for your mother."
     "I asked Billy to help me with the tree and we got it inside."

     "There was a bird in it," Billy said.
     "We spent a good part of the last hour chasing it. I finally chased it out the back door."
     That explained the noises in my dream. "Did the bird bite you?"
     Jim shook his head. "No, after it went outside, I came back in here and Billy said he heard another bird rustling in the tree. I reached inside to scare it out."
     "Was it a bird?"
     "A snake?"
     "No. Worse."
     Both my eyes and brain were still bleary. "What?"
     He pointed to the coffee table where the mangled Hickam family Bible

rested. It was open and on it sat something fuzzy and gray. A page had been torn from the Bible and the thing seemed to be eating it. I blinked again and then I knew what the thing was. "Chipper!"

Chipper enjoys a Christmas snack (yes, this is the real Chipper)

      At his name, the little squirrel squawked and jumped to the top of the couch, ran along it, and leaped for the curtains where it swung, its half-tail jerking spasmodically.       "I think he's been living in that tree for awhile," Jim mused.
     "That would explain why Mom's birdseed got eaten up so fast," I said.
     "Chipper!" It was Mom, come down from upstairs to see about the commotion. She was dressed in her housecoat. Chipper stopped fussing and threw himself down on the floor and zipped up Mom's robe and then on top of her head, digging a nest in her hair.       "My little boy," she said, delighted.

Chipper looketh out at the snow on the day he returneth

     I had my eyes focused enough to look at the Bible. Chipper had eaten an entire page from Jeremiah. "Jim and Billy found Chipper," I said, giving credit (or blame) where credit (or blame) was due.
     "He bit me," Jim said, unhappily. Billy just grinned a proud grin.

     "Thank you, Jimmie. And thank you, too, Billy. I just can't thank you enough."
     Chipper came down out of Mom's hair and into her arms where she held him like a baby, his little paws curling happily. "My little boy, my little boy," she crooned to him. "I know you've been far, far away but you just had to come home to me, didn't you? You never gave up, did you?"
     Jim and I looked at each other and shrugged. The Hickam family, for better or worse, was back together again. The Prodigal Squirrel returneth.

Chipper looks for something to destroy (bless him)
     Mom looked up from Chipper, then at Jim and me. "What day is it?" she asked.
     "Why, Christmas Eve," Jim said.
     She crossed to the Captain's porch and put a critical eye on the outside world. The snow had stopped but it had piled up over the fence. The road was covered with it, too.       "The Starvation Army won't come," she said grimly. "They won't be able to get over the mountain." She took a deep breath. Chipper jumped up on her shoulder, his little rat face taking on a look of studied concentration. Mom's face did, too, although she didn't look like a rat. She just looked tired but as I watched, there was a transformation. It seemed to me that she began to glow, as if an inner fire that had been damped down had burst again into flame.
     "Jimmie," she said, "I want you to go find Jake Mosby. Most likely, he's either still at the mine or down at the Club House. Wherever you find him, roust him out and tell him he needs to get the road cleared to Welch. Tell him he owes me and if he wants to argue with me about it, he can do it later but otherwise we don't have time for his usual foolishness. Tell him the Starvation Army is coming to Coalwood and he needs to clear a path for them, no matter what it takes."
     "Yes ma'am," Jim said.
     "Put chains on the Buick so you can get around."

     "Yes ma'am."
     "When you finish with Jake, get back here. I've got to get over to Welch. You're the best driver in Coalwood. If anybody can get me there, it's you."
     "Yes ma'am. I'll get Jake and then I'll drive you to Welch." Jim spoke with fierce determination. He grabbed his coat and headed outside.
     "I want to help, too, Mrs. Hickam," Billy said. "I'll shovel you a path to Welch if that's what it takes."
     "Thank you, dear," she said. "I believe you."
      I felt left out. "What can I do?" I asked.
     "I can't use a quitter," she said.
     "I don't think I'm a quitter anymore," I replied, softly.
     "I'm not surprised. You boys don't know a thing about quitting. I

guess you haven't seen enough of it to learn."
    Mom looked out at the tipple. A towering plume of steam rose from

the shaft and climbed through the man-hoist, curling and spreading until it disappeared into the layer of thick white clouds that covered the valley. She shook her head and crossed her arms as if she were cold. "Some things need quitting, though. Not many, but some. You just got to know the difference."
     She faced Billy and me and her lips were pressed together in that way she had when she'd made up her mind about something. "But that's for another time."
     She pondered the undecorated Christmas tree. "You two want to know what you can do? I'll tell you. Do the impossible. It seems like a good day for it."
     I puzzled over her words and then I knew what Mom wanted me to do. It was impossible, of course, but I couldn't wait to do it. 
Jim, Mom, and me at Christmas, 1959. Chipper was in the tree. (photo by Dad)