"In her hand, she held a green stick..."
Cadet Paul Ironhorse stood in his room, checking his uniform from top to toe for the third time. He glanced at the calendar hanging over his roommate's desk. December 24th. Christmas Eve day.
He took a deep breath, wondering what his family was doing... His mother would already be in the kitchen starting to cook, Sarah helping her. His grandfather would be sitting in his mother's small living room, his favorite chair pulled closer to the snapping fireplace—
The door burst open, scattering Paul's thoughts. A tall, lanky blond boy rushed in. "Come on, we're gonna be late!"
"No we're not," Paul assured, picking a tiny speck of lint off of his uniform sleeve.
The boy sighed heavily, his hands flying up, then down in frustrated defeat. "I hate this! Boy, do I wish we could've gone home for Christmas. My mom makes the best duck. You ever had duck?"
Paul shook his head.
"She makes really good plum pudding, too." Inspired by Paul's careful preparation, he smoothed his uniform, saying, "I just wish this performance was over."
"It's just a Christmas program, Sandy. Almost everyone's gone; there won't be that many people there. Besides, we get this over with this morning, then it's just another day — homework, assignments."
"But I hate performing in front of people!"
"Just pretend you're in class and going up to the boards to explain a calculus problem," Paul suggested, putting the finishing touches on his dress uniform.
"We don't have TAC officers in class," Sandy countered. "I just know I'm going to screw something up."
"You'll do fine, just like the rest of us, now come on," Paul said, grabbing his hat and striding past Sandy. "We're gonna be late."
The blond sighed and shook his head, then followed Paul out. "But what am I gonna do!?"
"Stand there and sing, just like the rest of us!"
"But I have to read all by myself."
"So? Reading's easy. I have to sing solo. Look, try this, pretend you're on a secret mission behind enemy lines and if you screw up, your cover will be blown and they'll shoot you dead."
Sandy scowled at his grinning roommate. "You're a big help, you know that?"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A long-standing tradition at West Point, the plebe Christmas program was a way for the first year cadets to pass the time, since they were required to remain at the military academy over the holidays. The small choir belted out Christmas carols in perfect harmony, some of the cadets read poetry and biblical passages, others led musical solos.
When the performance was over a small reception followed in the chapel, complete with breakfast pastries and hot coffee, the underclassmen nervously accepting comments and questions from the remaining officer staff who mingled with them, providing role models on how to hold a pastry plate and a cup of coffee, which to set aside to shake hands, and more. Finally, the cadets were free and they escaped, heading back to their barracks or to carry out various assigned tasks.
Sandy and Paul hurried back to their room to finish their calculus homework. That done, they ate lunch, then headed to the motor pool where they would stand in the small office, behind the narrow counter, waiting for someone to come in and check out a car. Not that anyone would, but it was another way to occupy the cadets' time and keep the homesickness at bay.
An hour before the end of their four-hour shift the office door opened, allowing in a blast of cold air along with Major Henry J. Wilson. Paul and Sandy immediately came to attention, their gaze sweeping to the clock on the wall — 4 PM.
"Sir, good afternoon, sir!" they barked out in unison.
Wilson removed his hat and shut the door a second time when a strong gust blew it open again. "I'll need a car for this evening," he said. "And I'll also need a driver and an escort."
"Sir, yes, sir!"
Paul spun the clipboard with the necessary forms around in one smart move. Sandy presented the major with a black pen.
Wilson filled out the necessary information, then set the pen aside, Sandy immediately picking it up and returning it to its assigned well.
Paul spun the board back around and carefully checked each line to be sure all the necessary information had indeed been filled out — after all, this could be a test and he didn't want to spend Christmas Day walking squares. His eyebrows climbed slightly when he noted the requested checkout time — an hour later. He looked up, coming to attention. "Sir, your car will be ready at the requested time, sir."
"Five o'clock is the end of your shift, isn't it?"
"Sir, yes, sir!" the cadets replied.
"That's what I thought. I'd like you two to drive me," Wilson stated. "That won't be a problem, will it?"
"Sir, no, sir!"
"An hour, gentlemen."
"Sir, yes, sir!"
The two cadets remained at attention until Wilson left the small office, then stepped back into at-ease stances.
"Why us?" Sandy asked, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
"I don't know," Paul replied, his gaze also fixed on the far wall. "But it beats going to mandatory chapel services tonight, and we get to miss a meal."
"Amen," Sandy agreed with a soft chuckle.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Paul and Sandy stood inside the small office, waiting for Wilson's arrival. The two cadets who had taken over the motor pool watch stood at-ease behind the counter while Paul and Sandy took up positions on either side of the door, waiting like sentinels.
Ten minutes into the next shift Wilson was blown into the office with a howl of wind. The four cadets came to attention.
"I see you're ready," Wilson said with a smile, adjusting his grip on two bags full of Christmas presents.
"Sir, yes, sir!" Paul and Sandy replied.
"Lead on, gentlemen," Wilson instructed.
Paul turned and led the way out to the covered parking spaces, opening the rear passenger door of a dark sedan for Wilson while Sandy climbed in behind the wheel.
The major shoved the bags in, then slid into the rear seat. Paul smartly closed the door, then climbed into the passenger side of the front seat. Sandy started the car and pulled out, uttering a silent prayer that he didn't hit anything.
Just past the Thayer Hotel, Wilson began feeding Sandy directions that took them out into the wintery countryside. Almost an hour later they arrived at a small residential neighborhood lined with well-kept houses decorated with Christmas lights. An occasional plastic snowman, Santa, or reindeer stood guard on brown front lawns.
Wilson leaned forward, saying, "The tan and brown-trim house up there on the right. The one with the lit tree in the yard."
Sandy slowed and pulled up, parking at the curb in front of the indicated house. Blinking lights lined the rafters, a large picture window, and twinkled merrily around a six foot pine in the front yard. Beyond the window the cadets could see another tree with blinking white lights sprinkled among red and gold ornaments.
Paul climbed out and opened the door for Wilson, who slid out with the bags in hand. Ironhorse took one of the totes, then closed the door while Sandy rounded the car and took the second bag. The two cadets escorted Wilson to the front door, standing a step behind the major while he rang the doorbell. They assumed that Wilson would take the bags and assign them to wait in the car and exchanged covert glances — maybe they'd get a chance to listen to a game on the car's radio.
The white, wreath-decorated door swung open, revealing an attractive woman in her thirties. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but several strands had escaped, falling to frame her heart-shaped face and set off her bright blue eyes. Paul heard Sandy swallow hard and fought back the urge to jab his elbow into the cadet's ribs.
A squeal from inside the house sounded just before a flash of blonde and Christmas green flew past the woman and attached itself to Wilson's legs. "Uncle Hank!" the young girl cried. "Santa's coming tonight!"
Wilson bent down and scooped the smaller version of the woman into his arms. "So I've heard," he told her, chuckling.
"Right on time! Come in," the woman said.
Paul and Sandy hesitated.
"You, too," Wilson said, starting inside. "And bring those presents!"
The cadets stepped in just far enough in to allow the woman to close the door, then drew themselves up, ready to spend the evening standing just inside the door. "Relax," she said softly. "This isn't West Point."
"This is Deanna Baxter Conner, my half-sister," Wilson introduced the woman, then tossed the child into the air and caught her. "And this is Charlotte."
"My husband, Mark and our older daughter will be home any time now. They're off doing some last minute shopping," Deanna said.
"How's Mark doing?" Wilson asked, setting Charlotte down and taking the two bags of presents from the cadets. "Why don't you go put out these under the tree, okay?"
The little girl smiled broadly and nodded, her ponytail bobbing. The bags were too big for her to carry, so she dragged them behind her into the living room.
"And who do we have here?" Deanna asked her brother.
"Cadets Sandy Patterson and Paul Ironhorse," Wilson said.
She smiled at the two teenagers. "Uncle Hank brings cadets to supper every Christmas Eve, so, please, relax and try to enjoy yourselves. Now, why don't you come in here..." She led Paul and Sandy into the large kitchen while Wilson headed into the living room to help his niece. Spread across the table was a collection of Christmas pastry that would put a bakery to shame.
Deanna smiled when she saw their hungry gazes sweep over the collection. "Plates are in that cupboard," she told them, pointing. "Milk's in the fridge and the coffee's fresh. Please, help yourselves. We won't eat until 7:30 or so."
"Thank you, ma'am," the pair chorused.
"You're welcome, but do me one favor, okay? No more 'sirs' or 'ma'ams' while you're here, okay?"
The two boys nodded.
She left them to snack and joined Wilson and her daughter.
"Is this okay?" Sandy asked softly, glancing around the kitchen like he was waiting for a TAC officer to jump out and start screaming at them.
"I don't know; I guess so," Paul replied. "Wilson wouldn't break the regulations."
Sandy grinned. "That's what I thought, too." He rubbed his hands together. "So, shall we eat?"
Paul shook his head. "Not if we're going to have supper here. We wouldn't want Mrs. Connor thinking we don't like her cooking."
"Given the smells in here, I don't think that'll be a problem," Sandy countered.
"Still, we should wait."
"Paul, sometimes you are no fun at all." He took a step closer. "Come on, just one gingerbread man?"
The blond boy sighed heavily. "All right, but I do want some coffee."
"That sounds good," Paul agreed. He sat down at the table, waiting while Sandy checked the cabinets for coffee cups. The aroma of turkey and ham baking combined with the spicy spells of the breads and cookies, reminding him of his mom's cooking, and a wave of homesickness washed over him.
"Here," Sandy said, handing Paul a steaming cup of coffee.
"You thinking about home?"
"Me, too." Sandy sat down across from Paul. "Next year we'll be able to go home for Christmas."
"Maybe," Paul said wistfully. "But it won't be the same."
"I know what you mean… because we won't be the same."
Paul took a sip of the coffee and sat the cup down. "You ever wonder who you're going to be when this is all over?"
"Sometimes, but I usually wonder if I'm going to get through four years."
A small lopsided grin lifted the right side of Paul's mouth. "I know what you mean."
"Why do you think Wilson picked us for this?"
A shrug. "I don't know. Captain Torkle took Ev and Bill someplace, too."
"And Caster and Tobell had some kind of duty with Major Williams."
Paul took another sip of the still-hot coffee and started to say something, but a call from the living room interrupted.
"Grab your food and come on in here," Deanna called.
Paul and Sandy stood, and carrying their cups, headed nervously into the living room.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Mark and ten-year-old Donna returned almost an hour later, adding more presents to the already huge collection sitting under the tree. Deanna excused herself, leaving the men to chat while she herded the girls into the kitchen to help her finish off the meal.
Another hour passed before Deanna called out that she could use some help setting the table. Mark was first into the kitchen where he kissed his wife, then retreated quickly when Sandy and Paul made it clear that they would tackle the table-setting task. Mark nodded his agreement and opened the champaign.
Deanna almost giggled when she saw the hungry looks on the boys' faces as she handed Paul the ham and Sandy the turkey. Donna maneuvered the mashed potatoes and stuffing to the table and Charlotte was placed in charge of the homemade bread rolls. They marched out of the kitchen like a small train.
Seated at the table Deanna said grace and Mark carved the turkey and ham while the two cadets began fielding an endless stream of questions from the two girls. Wilson watched the two young men, amused affection clear in his eyes. These were his picks, the two students among the plebe class he thought showed the most promise, not just as good soldiers, but as good men.
Food flowed freely around the table, plates filling and re-filling with regularity. Both of the cadets forced themselves to drop the ritualized eating pattern they had to adopt at the Point, slipping back into more 'normal' patterns. Wilson noted the flexibility and smiled inwardly. Flexibility was a requirement for a good soldier.
"Are you a real Indian?" Charlotte asked after Sandy finished telling Donna about the adventures of surfing. Sitting next to the young cadet, the five-year-old stared up at Paul, her blue eyes wide with youthful curiosity.
Wilson glanced up, noting the spreading blush on Paul's face. The true measure of a man was how well he handled himself in battle and how well he handled the questions of a child...
"Uh," Paul began.
"He sure is," Sandy interrupted. "A real Cherokee Indian."
"Chair-key?" Charlotte echoed, her expression confused, but it brightened quickly. "Like Tonto?"
Paul's mouth opened, closed and opened again as he said, "I think Tonto was a Sioux... or something."
"Na-uh," Charlotte countered. "His name wasn't Sue! He was Tonto Ranger, and, and his best friend was Lone Ranger. They're related," she concluded matter-of-factly.
"I see," Paul said, trying hard not to smile.
"Charlotte, eat your supper," Deanna instructed, hoping to spare Paul any further interrogation, but the five-year-old would not be deterred.
"Do you have a pony?" she asked Paul after a bite of her turkey.
Paul finished chewing his ham and washed it down with a sip of his champaign. "Yes, I have a horse back home."
"Is he pretty?"
Paul blinked. "Uh, she's... she's... pretty," he said, his ears beginning to burn.
"You have a pony?" Sandy asked, his gaze laughing.
Paul shot the cadet a smoldering glance. "A horse."
"Is she orange?"
Donna giggled. "Lotty, horses aren't orange."
"Yes, they are."
"No, they aren't."
"Well, some horses are kind of copper-colored," Paul said, interrupting the debate. "Like the color of a new penny. That's kind of an orange color."
"See," Charlotte gloated across the table at her older sister.
"But horses aren't orange like an orange," Donna countered. "That's real orange."
"My horse is tan all over, but she has a black mane, tail, and stockings," Paul said.
Donna giggled again. "She wears socks?"
Paul's cheeks turned bright red as the adults laughed. Wilson watched the young man regain his mental balance and answer.
"No, she doesn't wear socks, but her legs are black. Sometimes you see a light-colored horse with black legs or a dark horse with white legs. The black and the white markings are called stockings."
"I like palmettos," Donna announced. "Daddy said I can have a pony when I'm twelve."
"Palmetto?" Sandy asked.
"I think you mean a palomino," Paul suggested. "Like Roy Rogers' horse?"
Donna nodded excitedly. "Like Trigger! I want a pony just like Trigger!"
"Trigger is a palomino, a gold-colored horse with a white mane and tail. My horse is called a buckskin."
"Why?" Charlotte asked.
Paul thought for a moment, then chuckled. "I really don't know."
"What's your pony's name?" Donna asked.
"What's that?" Donna asked.
"It's Cherokee. It means Tiny Sparrow."
"What's my name in Chair-key?" Charlotte asked.
"Small child who asks too many questions," her father replied. "Charlotte, Donna, let Paul eat his supper."
Adult conversation took over for several minutes before Charlotte reached out and tugged on the elbow of Paul's sleeve. He looked down at the little girl.
"Do you shoot people with arrows?" she whispered.
Deanna covered her mouth with her napkin.
Here comes the real test, Wilson thought.
Paul leaned closer to the girl and replied in an equally soft whisper. "No, I have a tomahawk, just like Tonto."
Charlotte's eyes widened and she nodded solemnly. "You really are a real Indian," she said sagely.
Sandy coughed and snorted into his napkin, Paul steadfastly ignoring the other cadet and avoiding Wilson's amused gaze. "I try," he told the girl, glancing sidelong at Sandy. "But it isn't always easy."
The rest of dinner passed engaged in 'adult' conversation, Paul and Sandy content to do more listening than talking. When the meal was over and the dishes cleared, washed, and dried they all headed into the living room for a round of Christmas carol singing before Deanna read the King James version of the Christmas story to her enthralled daughters. Mark took over next, reading the ever popular T'was the Night Before Christmas while Donna and Charlotte each picked one wrapped present from under the tree to open.
Donna squealed in delight when she found an eight inch tall grey Arabian model horse under the bright green wrapping paper. She hugged the plastic horse to her chest and cooed, talking quietly to her new treasure.
Charlotte tore past bright red and gold paper to a white box that she turned upside down and shook open. A tissue-wrapped Pigglet fell out. The five-year-old scooped the stuffed toy up and squeezed it hard. "Pigglet! I'm so glad you could come! Pooh-Bear is very sad here without you."
She looked up at her parents. "I'm going to go take Pigglet to see Mr. Pooh."
"And you can put your PJ's on, too." Deanna glanced at Donna. "You, too, young lady."
"Ah, mom, can't I stay up?" the older girl pleaded.
Deanna and Mark shook their heads. "You have to go to bed if you want Santa to come tonight," Mark explained. "Now, scoot."
The two girls left, their gifts hugged to their chests.
"Reminds me of my little sisters," Sandy said with a grin.
Paul grinned. "Reminds me of you," he said softly.
Sandy stuck his tongue out at Paul without anyone noticing.
"I rest my case," Paul whispered back.
They waited in comfortable silence while Deanna disappeared to make coffee. She returned with the steaming cups a moment before the two girls bounded back into the room, dressed in red and green holiday pajamas. They each gave Wilson a hug and a kiss on his cheek, then moved to Deanna, then Mark, who gave each girl a kiss and a swat on their rumps. They stopped in front of Sandy and Paul.
"Good-night," Donna said, her gaze for Sandy alone. She extended her hand. "It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Patterson."
"It was a pleasure to meet you as well, Miss Conner," Sandy said as formally as he could. He took her extended fingers and kissed the back of her hand.
Wilson hid his smile behind his hand as he cleared his throat. Sandy was a handsome boy and it was obvious he'd given his niece the focus for a crush. He grinned inwardly. One that would probably last all of a day, or maybe two...
Donna giggled and blushed, then bolted from the room, calling, "Come on, Lotty!"
Charlotte ignored her sister and headed straight for Paul's lap, climbing up and turning around so she was leaning back against his chest, her legs stretched out along his thighs. "Tell me a real Indian story," she directed Paul.
"Charlotte Ann Connor, it's time for you to go to bed," Deanna countered.
The tiny feet fluttered in protest. "Mommmeey!"
"I don't mind," Paul said, trying to suppress the blush that he knew had turned his ears bright red.
"Paul is quite a storyteller," Wilson said, enjoying the mix of emotions on the young man's face. He was embarrassed by the attention, but at the same time, he enjoyed the little girl's affection. It reminds him of home, Wilson realized.
Paul thought a moment, then took a deep breath and began, his voice falling into the soft, cadenced tones of the storyteller...
"When the world was new, a long, long, time ago, there was an old man who wandered the earth all alone. This old man had long white hair—"
"Santa Claus?" Charlotte asked.
"Not exactly," Paul said. "Now, wherever this old man walked the ground grew hard as stone, and when he breathed the rivers stopped flowing, and the ponds and lakes became solid. All the animals fled before him, and the plants dried up and died as the leaves shriveled and fell from the trees.
"Finally, the old man found a place he liked and he built his lodge — that's his house. He made the walls of his lodge from ice and when he was done he covered his lodge all over with snow. Then he sat down inside in front of a fire which gave off no heat, though a strange, flickering light came from it."
"It sounds cold," Charlotte said, her eyes starting to droop.
"Now, the only friend this old man had was North Wind, who would sit beside the fire with him and they would laugh and talk about all the things they did to make the world cold. But one morning, as the two dozed by the flameless fire they felt something was wrong. The air was heavy, hard to breathe, so they sat up and stared at each other, but neither the old man nor North Wind knew what was wrong.
"Finally, they got up and they looked outside and there they saw something very strange happening. The snowdrifts were growing smaller and smaller, and cracks were forming in the ice on the ponds and lakes.
"North Wind shook his head. 'I can staaaaay no longerrrr,'" Paul quoted, dropping his voice to a low moaning howl.
"So North Wind left the lodge and flew through the air, up, up, up towards the north, never stopping until he reached a place where the snow and ice were deep and there was no hint of warmth anywhere."
"The north pole!" Charlotte cried happily. "Where Santa Claus lives!"
"That's right," Paul said. "But the old man decided to stay right where he was. He knew his ice and snow lodge was strong. So he went back inside and he sat down in front of his cold fire. Then, there was a knock at his door.
"The old man grunted, but didn't open the door. The pounding grew louder and louder until pieces of ice started to fall away.
"'Go away!'" Paul cried, mimicking an old man's grouchy voice. "'No one can enter my lodge! Go away, I tell you!'"
Charlotte giggled again. "He's a grinch."
"Then, right before the old man's eyes his ice door broke! And a young woman stood outside, a smile on her face. Without a word she stepped inside the lodge and sat down where North Wind usually sat. In her hand, she held a green stick, and she used it to stir the strange flickering cold light.
"And as she stirred the fire began to grow warm. The old man felt the sweat begin to run down his face. 'Who are you?' asked the old man. 'Why have you broken my door? I want no one here except North Wind, who you chased away. Leave, or I will freeze you with one blow of my breath.'
"The young woman just smiled at the old man and didn't say a word, so the old man leaned back and sucked in a big, deep breath..." Paul leaned back, drawing in a breath.
Charlotte tried to mimic him, gulping in a breath.
Still holding the breath, Paul said, "Then the old man blew his chilly breath at the young woman!" He leaned forward slightly and blew into Charlotte's ponytail.
She laughed and blew, too.
"The old man sat up straighter, his eyes going very, very wide. Why, only a thin mist had come from his lips, not an icy wind!
"The young woman laughed. 'Old Man,'" Paul said in a light falsetto. "'Let me sit here and warm myself next to your fire.'
"The old man grew angry. 'No!' he said in a very grumpy voice. 'I am the one who makes the birds and the animals flee. Wherever I step the ground turns to flint. I make the snow and the ice. I am mightier than you!'
"But as he spoke he had to wipe more sweat off his brow," Paul said, reaching up to mime the move.
Charlotte mimicked the gesture, then panted like Paul, pretending she was hot.
"The young woman just smiled. 'Listen, old man,' she said. 'I am young, but I am strong, too.' She blew at the old man, and a warm breeze whipped across his icy face. 'Wherever I breathe the plants grow and the flowers bloom. Where I step the grasses sprout and the snow melts away. The birds and animals come to visit with me so we can play. Outside my friend, South Wind, is blowing on your lodge. Soon it will be melted away. It is time for you to leave.'"
"'Who are you?' the old man demanded, as grouchy as ever."
"Grouch," Charlotte echoed.
"'Do you not know me, old man?' she asked.
"'You look so familiar,' he replied. 'But I can't see you well. Tell me who you are.'
"'I am your daughter,' she said and the old man's eyes grew wide. It was true. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Instead, he smiled, growing smaller and smaller until he melted all away. The icy walls of the lodge fell away and the snow was all melted, and where the cold fire had burned there was only lots and lots of pretty white flowers.
"Spring stood and waved goodbye to her father, knowing she would see him again the following winter when she came to visit, and send him back to the far north to spend his days with North Wind while she and her mother took care of the earth until her brother came to send them home in the Fall."
Paul looked down, finding Charlotte sound asleep in his lap. "The end."
Mark stood and scooped his daughter up. "Couldn't have done that better myself," he said with a grin, then carried her off to bed.
"That was lovely," Deanna said.
"Thank you," Paul said, glancing briefly at Wilson, who looked pleased.
The major stood. "It's getting late," he said. "I'll drop by tomorrow."
Deanna stood and gave her half-brother a hug, then kissed his cheek. "Okay, but you better make it early. Donna will be up at the crack of dawn to see what Santa left."
Wilson chuckled. "I'll see what I can do."
Paul and Sandy expressed their thanks for the wonderful dinner and company, then escorted Wilson back to the car, Paul opening the rear door while Sandy walked around to drive them back to the Point. They watched Mark and Deanna wave from behind their front window as they pulled away from the curb. Wilson waved back, then settled back against the car seat and gave Sandy directions back to the highway.
The ride back to the Point passed quickly in comfortable silence. Sandy parked at the motor pool, he, Paul, and Wilson entering the office to turn in the keys and sign the car back in. The major escorted them back to their barracks, the threesome pausing at the door.
"Thank you, sir," the two cadets chorused.
"My pleasure," Wilson said, checking his watch. It was almost midnight. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, sir," the pair replied.
The pair took a step back and turned as one, then entered the door, the heavy wood falling closed behind them.
Wilson smiled to himself. He'd made the right choices.
 A slightly modified version of "Spring Defeats Winter" from Native American Stories told to Joseph Bruchac.