The Christmas Hero

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          The snowflakes fell throughout the morning Samuel promised to deliver a blue spruce to his grandmother for Christmas. It was a good thing he left early because as soon as he'd chosen and chopped the tree, the snow storm was upon him. He thanked his own foresight for using the sled like a travois dragging behind his trusty pinto, aptly named Pinto. As they made their way through the silent forest, he marveled as he often did at the towering trees around him, the sierras in the distance and Hermit's Peak standing watch over all. It was God's country, to quote the people who lived in and around the valley where he lived all his life. And it felt like heaven on earth on this day as he breathed the clean, cold air. He raised his face to the sun which endeavored to permeate the clouds and deliver warmth to man and beast.

          "Good thing el serpiente hibernates in the winter," he spoke aloud, "or we'd be hightailing it home, slipping and sliding down the monte, eh, Pinto?"

          "Neh—heh heh," the paint nickered as though replying.

           The fabled serpent of the canyon was something all the inhabitants watched out for whenever they traveled in the mountains which surrounded the hamlet where they lived. That it was only seen once by the elderly Don Epifanio Tafoya back in the '30s didn't make any difference. He had never been known to lie—ever. So when he told of his encounter with the biggest snake he'd ever seen, everyone believed him. As wide as the belly of a full grown elk, the length unknown because Don Epifanio had fled before seeing its entire body emerge from its hiding place, the legendary monster lived somewhere deep in the woods. And Samuel, like everyone who went into the forest for whatever reason, always kept an eye out for it—just in case.

          As Samuel and Pinto continued their trek back home, they came upon a small flock of turkeys and so as they arrived at his grandmother's house, he had not only the tree but also two of the fat birds to deliver. Since Christmas was a few days away, he was fortunate to have completed the task. He had much to do in the next days and evenings to come.

          From her kitchen window where she prepared breakfast, Samuel's abuela, Josefita, watched as he rode up to the front of the house. Wiping her hands on her apron before reaching for her shawl, she went out on the veranda to greet him.

          "Buenos días le de Dios, m'hito," Josefita blessed the day as he dismounted and tied the horse to the latilla in front of the porch which ran the length of the three room house. She took stock of the tree with two fat turkeys lying on top and clapped her hands.

          "¡Mira! You brought Christmas dinner!"

          "Sí, Gramma," Samuel laughed at her delight. Although he'd been raised by and still lived with his parents, his grandmother had a big influence in the young man he was becoming. He loved the plump, yet strong, older woman who inevitably wore a smile on her face and a long dress with an apron over it as her daily attire. There was never a day when she wasn't busy with cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, or leading the other women of the community as la Madre Cuidadora de las Verónicas. As the guardian mother of the group of devout society called the Veronicas, she guided the young women and girls in her charge in their duties. They were the caretakers of the little capilla, the small chapel, and the morada, the prayer house, and helpmates of los Hermanos. She took great pride in organizing such events as las Posadas for Christmas and other such religious celebrations which occurred every year for Lent.

          "Tomorrow, I'll go back with Primo Antonio so he can see if he can get another," Samuel continued. "I saw plenty up at el valle." The valle was a lush meadow a little over a mile away behind the house in the forest which thrived with wildlife when el serpiente was dormant. They unloaded the sled, and Samuel fed and watered the horse while his grandmother went into the house. The wood stove revved and roared like an engine with all the wood she added to get it hot enough to make breakfast and to bake bizcochitos afterward. Although most homes had electric appliances by this time—it was the 1940s, after all—many older women refused to remove their wood stoves from their kitchens; there was something about the taste of food prepared on the wood stoves that electric ranges lacked. In addition, during the cold fall and winter seasons, they kept the houses warm.

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