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Rescue on Ragtop Mountain

by Ron Van Sweringen

A December wind, chilling to the bone, sent snow swirling over the Virginia countryside. Trover Marks followed a twisting path through the overgrown maze of snow-covered thistle and wild milkweed on Ragtop Mountain.

A strapping lad of fourteen years, he walked holding a rough burlap sack over one shoulder, his breath flowing out like a frosted ribbon on the cold air. A black and white mongrel dog trailed at his heels, cocking her head to the faint sounds emanating from the burlap sack.

Trover’s hands ached with the cold as he squeezed one into a tight fist, jamming it into a worn coat pocket. His fingers burned, seeking what precious warmth the garment could afford.

It was over a mile, by his recollection, before he made out the familiar shape of his grandmother’s cabin, a thin trail of smoke rising from its chimney. “Almost home,” he said under his breath, picking up his step. The thought of a fire in the stone hearth warmed him.

Trover was suddenly startled by something darting across the path in front of him. The dog was on its trail instantly and returned quickly, carrying a white-tailed rabbit which she surrendered to him.

“Good girl, Daisy,” said Trover, bending to stroke her head. “This will make a good dinner and you’ll get your share, girl.”

Trover heaved a sigh of relief when he reached the cabin. It was an old but well-constructed shelter of medium-sized logs, with large river stones as a foundation, three rooms deep with a narrow porch and wood-shingled roof. Small glass pane windows were recessed into the logs on each side of the wood-planked door.

A garland of green holly sprinkled with red berries hung over the door and the orange glow of a kerosene lamp filtered through the frosted glass. Trover could see moving shadows inside as he kicked his snow-covered boots against the steps.

The door flew open and a thin figure in a lavender shawl poked her head into the cold. The face was worn and a shock of white hair stuck out from under the shawl.

“Did you find ’em, boy?” she asked, seeing the sack thrown over Trover’s shoulder.

“Yes, Maw-maw,” he replied. “She led me straight to ’em, in a hollow near Smith’s Mill. Wonder why she took to having ’em so far from the cabin?”

“It’s the wildness in her, son,” the old woman replied, motioning him inside. “Bring ’em in before they freeze to death.”

The cabin felt blessedly warm to Trover. He gently lifted the burlap sack from his shoulder and lowered it to the floor. Maw-maw drew up a spindle chair as he knelt down and opened the top of the sack, exposing its contents, six small pups crawling over each other and mewing softly.

“Well if that ain’t a sight.” Maw-maw smiled, resting her hands on her knees.

“Six of them,” Trover replied excitedly, “and one is pure white.”

Daisy pushed her head into the open sack, going from one pup to another, carefully smelling each one.

“Day after tomorrow is Christmas Eve,” Trover said, gently touching the white pup, “and this is a fine Christmas present.”

“Let her feed ’em now,” Maw-maw said. “Plenty of time for getting acquainted when she’s done. “

An hour later, a black iron pot on the old cook stove simmered under its heavy lid. The aroma of rabbit stew with vegetables from the root cellar filled the small cabin, along with the smell of freshly baked cornbread. An old wicker basket near the fireplace held Daisy and her sleeping family.

After dinner, Maw-maw told Trover, “Tomorrow morning early, you take Jack into town with my market list. See how much Mr. Weaver will trust us for.” She added optimistically, “Maybe he’ll let us have a nice fat capon for our Christmas dinner and some brown sugar for ginger cookies.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Trover replied, excited at the prospect of going into Martinsburg, a three-hour round trip, if he could keep Jack moving. The old donkey could be stubborn when the notion struck him.

Maw-maw took her place at the kitchen table after Trover was asleep. She often sat there by lantern light in the evenings, mending garments or making clothes-pin dolls for Mr. Weaver to sell in his general store.

Taught by her mother, she had learned to make the novelties as a child, a hill country tradition begun long before store-bought toys were known to country people.

Maw-maw’s clothespin dolls, dressed in scraps of flour-sack material, cost twenty-five cents each. Mr. Weaver didn’t sell many, but once in a while a visitor would buy one or two as a keepsake.

Life on Ragtop Mountain was not easy for Martha May Parker and her grandson. It was the winter of 1937 and the Great Depression was teaching people everywhere that life was hard, something West Virginia mountain folk had known all along.

Oh, there had been good years in the beginning, when a young mountain girl met and fell in love with a boy named Wilbur Parker from across the river. Martha May Hill was pretty then, freckle-faced with red hair that burned like copper in the sun and eyes the color of winter moss.

Now Maw-maw sat alone, the good and bad years showing in her face, the husband and daughter taken by an influenza epidemic ten years ago. The good Lord in his mercy had spared her grandson, giving her a reason to go on living. Trover looked out at her with her daughter’s eyes and every now and again tilted his head as his grandfather had, when he was a young man.

In a few more months, the two of them would go catfishing in the river again and spend warm afternoons watching the white pup grow. But not now, not in December on Ragtop Mountain.

Maw-maw had managed to make Trover a red wool scarf, working on it for many weeks in the evenings after he was in bed. The scarf was extra long and the wool, thick and warm. It was all she had as a present for him.

Maw-maw blew out the kerosene lamp and looking toward heaven, whispered, “Thank you, Lord, for watching over us and, if it’s not too much to ask, we sure could do with a fat capon, come Christmas day.”

Trover had Jack saddled and ready to go early the next morning, but Maw-maw made him wait until the sun warmed things up a bit. Before the boy left, she took the red scarf out of her dresser drawer.

“I was saving this for Christmas Day, but see’n how cold it is, I reckon you better wear it today,” Maw-maw said, handing the scarf to Trover. “Remember to mind your manners in town and be respectful to Mr. Weaver. Make me proud of you, boy.”

With a wave of the old woman’s hand, Trover was off, riding old Jack down the snowy path toward the road to Martinsburg.

Even though the sun was bright, it was a cold day and Trover appreciated the warmth of the red scarf. It was long enough to be wrapped around his neck twice, with plenty left over to go under his coat. It was the best scarf he had ever seen and the bright red color made him happy to wear it.

When Trover saw Mr. Pritchard’s farm house, he stopped. The old man lived alone and Maw-maw made Trover stop whenever he passed, to see if he needed any help. Trover knocked on the door and Mr. Pritchard opened it with a toothless smile. In his red long-johns, white hair standing up in peaks and long wispy beard blowing in the wind, he reminded Trover of Santa Claus.

“I was hoping you would pass this way,” Mr. Pritchard said. “I could use some wood stacked on the porch. I’m plumb out.”

When Trover finished stacking the wood, Mr. Prichard brought him out a cup of steaming coffee and two red apples.

“It’s not much of a present, son,” the old man said, “an apple for you and one for old Jack.” Before he closed the door, he added, “Tell your grandma I asked after her.”

The apple improved old Jack’s disposition, and the hot coffee warmed Trover up, so much so that he wondered what Mr. Pritchard had put in it.

Trover and Old Jack arrived at the covered bridge over Smith Creek a while later. In the summertime, the creek was a favorite swimming hole, with a deep pool in the center. Today the water was frozen gray and the banks of the creek covered with snow. Trover watched the bright sunshine begin to fade and dark clouds fill the horizon. The wind picked up and he had an uneasy feeling that snow would follow soon.

Trover and old Jack were halfway across the covered bridge when he heard a shout. At first it was faint and he thought he had imagined it. Then he heard the cry again, louder. It sounded desperate. Trover slid off of old Jack and ran to the end of the bridge. The cries were coming from the frozen creek, at the widest part.

A young boy was lying on the ice. When he saw Trover, he began shouting.

“Help me, the ice is broken.”

Without hesitation, Trover threw himself down the snow-covered embankment. He could see the boy clearly, he was about ten years old and his legs had broken through the ice.

“Don’t move,” Trover shouted, “I’ll get you out.”

Trover knew better than to walk on the ice. He pulled off the red scarf and lying down on his stomach, he began inching out over the frozen water. He could see the boy’s face now and hear him whimpering. The boy was still several feet from him when Trover heard the first warning sounds of thin ice. He had to get a little closer, so he could throw his scarf to the boy.

* * *

Maw-maw didn’t like the dark clouds pushing their way over the mountain. “Snow clouds for sure,” she thought, looking out of the small window. “Trover should be to town by now.” She couldn’t put her finger on it, but her intuition made her uncomfortable. She wished that he had not gone, that he was sitting at the kitchen table instead, doing his schoolwork.

A sharp knock on the door startled Maw-maw. Mr. Hawkins, who owned the farm a mile up the road, tipped his hat when she opened the door.

“Morning, Mrs. Parker,” he smiled. Maw-maw saw his old pick-up truck parked by the road.

“I passed Trover a while back, heading toward Martinsburg. Didn’t think much of it till I noticed those clouds up there. It’s getting colder too. Looks like we’re in for some heavy snow.”

“To tell you the truth, Mr. Hawkins, I have a bad feeling about the boy. I sent him to get supplies and now with this storm closing in...” Maw-maw said, looking worried.

“Don’t fret,” Mr. Hawkins replied. “I’ll circle back right now and find him.”

* * *

The boy was shivering when Trover threw the red scarf toward him. It was a good throw and the scarf landed very near the boy’s hand.

“Wrap it around your wrist and then hold it tight with both hands,” Trover shouted. The boy was shaking so badly, it took him a while to accomplish the task.

“Hold on tight,” Trover shouted. “I’m going to pull you out.” Trover pulled the scarf with all of his strength and slowly the boy’s legs slid free of the icy water. It seemed like an eternity before Trevor had his arms around the boy, and they both crawled onto the snow-covered bank.

Trover wrapped the boy’s legs in the scarf and picked him up. He was shivering so hard that it frightened Trover as he made his way up the embankment to the covered bridge. An automobile horn sounded and headlights shone on the road ahead

The red pickup truck came to a sharp stop and Mr. Hawkins threw open the passenger door.

“He fell through the ice,” Trover blurted out when he recognized Mr. Hawkins.

“Get him inside by the heater where its warm,” Mr. Hawkins replied quickly, seeing the nearly unconscious boy. “Are you alright?” he asked Trover, before closing the truck door.

“Yes, sir, I’m alright,” Trover replied, a strong sigh of relief in his voice.

“Take your mule and get on home as quick as you can, while I get this boy to the hospital. Don’t waste any time, there’s a heavy snow coming.”

By the time Trevor led old Jack into the small shed behind the cabin, it was snowing hard. He took the harness off of the mule and hung it on the wall, then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the second apple Mr. Pritchard had given him.

“Here Jack,” he said, giving the apple to the animal, “Merry Christmas.”

Maw-maw threw her arms around Trover as soon as he opened the door. “God bless you son,” was all she managed to say, before tears took her voice away. She put his damp coat and boots to dry by the cook stove and brought him a leftover bowl of rabbit stew. Trover ate heartily while telling her the story of the boy on the ice and his rescue.

When Trover finished, Maw-maw sat quietly looking at him, fully comprehending the danger he had faced.

Later Trover had a bath in the tin tub that Maw-maw filled with hot water from the cook stove. After his bath, he went to bed, but not before playing with the white pup and holding her in his arms.

The next morning Maw-maw let Trover sleep late. When he got up she had a streaming bowl of oatmeal and a cup of hot coffee waiting for him on the kitchen table. Snow had continued falling on the mountain throughout the night and it looked like a picture-postcard.

Trover saw to Old Jack, with an extra helping of oats and fresh water in the trough. It finally stopped snowing in the afternoon and Trover cut down a small fir tree near the cabin. The smell of fresh pine needles filled the room. Maw-maw hung her clothes-pin dolls on the green branches, and for the top of the tree she brought out a tin-foil star that she saved from year to year. “Now it’s Christmas,” she smiled.

Trover spent a lazy afternoon playing with the white pup in front of the fireplace. He thought about the young boy and wondered how he was. Maw-maw baked a batch of Christmas cookies, using the last of the brown sugar with a sigh. “Looks like this is going to be our Christmas dinner,” she said to herself.

The noise brought Daisy out of her basket barking. Maw-maw couldn’t believe her ears, unless she was mistaken, those were old-fashioned sleigh bells. A quick look out of the frosted window convinced her it was real. Mr Hawkins was driving a four-seater sleigh, pulled by two brown mares. His face was flushed, his nose and cheeks red from the cold.

“Merry Christmas,” he shouted as Maw-maw opened the door.

“Reckon I’ll be your Santa Claus this year, Mrs. Parker,” he smiled. “Will you help me unload the sleigh, Trover?”

Maw-maw watched armloads of groceries come through the door. Mr. Hawkins saved the turkey for last, and it was a beauty, with its large plump breast and gleaming white skin.

Over a cup of hot coffee and some of her newly baked Christmas cookies, Mr. Hawkins answered Maw-maw’s questions.

“Everything is from Mr. Weaver’s general store and is all paid for,” Mr. Hawkins said with a smile. “Mr. Weaver asked me to tell you that a five hundred dollar credit at his store has been opened for you, by Mr. John T. Williams.”

Maw-maw looked confused.

“Mr. Williams is the father of the boy Trover rescued. The doctor told him his son would have died, except for Trover. I reckon this is his way of trying to repay you. “

Maw-maw sat quietly for a while, looking at all of the food filling the kitchen. “I would be proud to invite you and your family for Christmas dinner tomorrow,” she said, “seeing as how it was your kindness that helped save the boy.”

As Mr. Hawkins was leaving, Maw-maw stopped him at the door. “Could I ask you one more favor? Would you fetch Mr. Pritchard over here with you tomorrow?” she asked. “Christmas or not, the old coot could do with a good meal.”

A while later Maw-maw found Trover in front of the fireplace, asleep in the rocker. Tucked under his chin was the sleeping white pup.

Before Maw-maw blew out the lantern in the kitchen, she looked toward heaven and said softly, “Lord, I only asked for a fat capon for Christmas. I reckon you’ve outdone yourself. I know you don’t make mistakes, Sir, but are you sure you’ve got the right old woman?”

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen

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