The South Dakota record books would later deem it ‘the hundred year blizzard.’ It began on a Sunday morning in late December, 1948, and families driving home from church that day delighted in the pristine white softness as they headed home to farms and ranches spread miles apart along the county roads.
Ruth Hofstadter Whalen sat stiffly in the cab of the faded green Chevy truck beside her husband of fifteen years. Tom insisted on weekly church, said it helped him with life’s unanswered questions, besides it was good for the kids. Ruth had been a faithful church goer all her life, not that one had a choice growing up in South Dakota. The Hofstadter’s and Whalen’s had been Lutherans all their lives, as had their parents and the generations before. But Ruth and God had had a falling out a of couple years back.
She glanced at the ominous bank of clouds building along the eastern horizon. “Tom, maybe we’d better stop at Bullard’s and pick up some food and extra supplies?” It wasn’t really a question, and they both knew it.
Tom barely nodded, turned right at the next mile-marker and headed toward town. The weathered gray sign painted with white hand-written letters said: Bullard, S.D., pop. 85. The town council hadn’t replaced the sign in twenty years. The few new babies born at the county hospital in Eureka replaced the dying elders every so often, and the number of residents remained pretty much the same.
Betsy, age ten and Timmy, ‘almost seven’ he insisted, rode in the bed of the old pick-up; a thin glass pane from their parents’ conversation. “Candy,” Tim whispered when he heard his mother’s request. Both he and Betsy grew excited. For the next few miles, they competed to see who could catch the most snow flakes on their tongues by the time they reached Bullard Gas and General.
The store had been the main-stay of the town since its inception and was named, as was the town, for Old Man Bullard whose grand pappy had owned the first cattle ranch in the area. The parking lot was full when they arrived. Ruth hopped down quickly but turned back at the last minute. “The wood pile will be getting wet, Tom, and we don’t have much stacked on the porch. Better pick up a bit more, don’tcha think?”
Tom raised his hand in agreement, then slipped each child two pennies with a warning not to tell their mother. He pressed Gene Bullard about the price of gasoline as the man filled the tank. “Twenty-six cents a gallon, Gene? For God’s sake; you must be countin’ on this turnin’ to a blizzard.” It was true; nearly every vehicle was stopping at the pumps. He drove toward the rear of the store and joined a dozen other men stacking logs and kindling inside their truck beds. Some stood around making small talk and a few taking bets on the upcoming storm. He knew it would take Ruth awhile to make her purchases, so he joined them.
Ruth was a tall, thin woman—just three inches shy of Tom’s 6’4” frame. They had met in high school: farm kids who lived miles from the old wood-frame school house on the north edge of Bullard. She had played Center on the BHS Beaver’s basketball team. Tom had been their highest scorer senior year. Back in those days, it took both boys and girls to make up a team in farm country.
Her steel gray eyes could pierce you. She had once had a softer side that made them flash with humor. These days she wore a harder shell. Ruth resembled every other farm wife walking the dozen or so aisles of canned food and past the large open bags of flour and corn meal, sugar and salt.
She unbuttoned her old navy wool coat, unwound a hand-knit scarf from her neck, and crammed her matching gloves half-way into her pockets. She wore heavy gray stockings and black chunky-heeled dress shoes, turned charcoal after five years of weekly wear. Ruth nodded to a few of the women and spoke to Mabel Cranston, her nearest neighbor, ten miles northeast.
“Lighting the last advent candle today?” Mabel asked. “Hard to believe Christmas is in three days, yah?”
Ruth forced a smile as she thought of the circle of candles on the dining room table. Three burned well down and the fourth waiting like a sentinel announcing a day she dreaded. She nodded. “Merry Christmas, Mabel.”
Ruth joined the check-out line to sign the ledger. The Whalen’s ran a tab that sometimes carried over a few months depending on livestock sales and the crops. She hated carrying debt. When she spotted her tow-headed children near the front of the store, she called out, “Betsy, go tell your daddy I’ll be along in a moment; then run back and help me carry these bags, you hear?” The bell on the door clanged loudly as the two charged outside; then reappeared a moment later by her side.
“Do I smell licorice on your breath, Tim Whalen?” she said as she bent to hand him a burlap sack of potatoes and onions.
“Ah, ma!” he said, hanging his head in defeat. “Daddy said ….”
Ruth shook her head side to side. “Your father ….”
Tom had moved the truck nearer the door and jumped out quickly to help. He placed the provisions near the back of the truck bed, just under the window. Betsy and Tim were given the task of holding down the lighter weight bags of groceries as they sat on the stack of wood and kindling behind their parents. They bumped along on the half hour trip along old Route 378A.
It was nearly noon now. The snow had already gained another inch.
Betsy gently elbowed her brother. “Snow day tomorrow—I’ll bet you a quarter.”
“Nah,” Tim said, “I’d bet the same . . . but I’ll bet a nickel on a snowball fight!”
As Tom slowed to a near-stop before turning onto the long gravel road that led to their two-story white frame farmhouse, the two of them leaped from the truck. Timmy pelted Betsy with snow balls as they climbed the hill, while she tried hard to form the soft snow into ammunition of her own. Tom glanced at Ruth and grinned.
“Those kids; they’ll be a mess if we get snowed in too long,” he said.
Ruth nodded. “Best let them run off some of that steam now.” Her eyes filled with tears as she watched the two bounding like deer through the snow. A lump grew in her throat. She pushed away the memory that accompanied it.
That same Sunday morning a young couple, Hazel and Charley Smith, drove along County Road 34 headed south from Fairpoint, ND to Sioux Falls. Their first baby was due in a week, and Hazel was convinced it would be born on Christmas day. She’d had one of her “visions” that Charley laughed about. No angels sent with trumpets; just a simple feeling that this had happened before.
The trip to visit Charley’s parents was to be an early holiday for his entire family, all of whom lived within a ten mile radius of each other. The ‘family enclave’, Hazel had dubbed it in good humor. She wished she were going toward her own home in Mankato to see her mama, but it was much too far into her pregnancy to risk a trip to Minnesota. She had argued with Charley about making the trip so close to her due date, but he wouldn’t let her stay home alone, nor did she want to be alone right now. They’d stay a day or so and be home by Christmas Eve he promised her.
His father had suffered a mild stroke a few weeks back, and though his mother assured Charley he was progressing nicely, Charley was anxious to get home. He’d missed too much of home for far too long, and though his heart wasn’t into much of anything these days, he was ready for a break. The winter wheat had been planted for some time, and except for browsing seed catalogues and counting up the negative column in the accounting ledger, he had time for both the trip and the arrival of their first child.
The back seat of the ’43 Buick was stacked high with wrapped and ribboned presents; most of them hand-made by Hazel. Crocheted potholders, tatted tree decorations in various shapes and sizes, and her pride and joy—the quilt for Charley’s mother. Just yesterday afternoon, she had placed the last tiny stitch in the final square, cut the thread with her teeth, and sighed; thankful she could now put the large quilt form away and replace it with the newly painted crib that awaited its spot by the window.
She didn’t look forward to the eight-hour trip. Her belly was swollen and as hard as a watermelon; one tiny foot continually caught beneath her rib cage, and no amount of pushing or stroking would budge it.
“You okay?” Charley asked, as he glanced at her right hand kneading beneath her swollen breasts.
Hazel smiled gently. “I’ll be fine, but I think your son is going to be an athlete.”
Charley chuckled but he seemed distracted. Hazel reached across to push aside his sandy brown hair that seemed to hang straight into his eyes, no matter how he parted it. Her hand wiped across his crinkled brow. “Are you worried about your daddy?” she said.
He stayed focused on the road ahead but his voice cracked slightly. “Christmas and the baby will be a good distraction for us all.”
Hazel nodded in agreement and her hand slid from his forehead to his shoulders where she felt the knotted tension he seemed to carry constantly these days. Though the war had ended several years ago, she kept waiting for her old Charley to return. He kept reassuring her that it was just fatigue and readjustment to civilian life, but Hazel felt him in the night thrashing the covers as if he were fighting off the enemy. His cries often startled her awake, and she would comfort him by stroking his back and neck while he slept. She had no idea what Charley had seen or what he had done over there, but she knew he had come home a changed man. He refused to talk about it and stayed busy with the farm. Maybe they were both just too frightened to trust in a future.
He was right; this trip and this baby might do wonders for him. She turned the radio dial until she found a station and hummed along to Glenn Miller for a few miles before the air waves crackled with static. Hazel turned the knob again but found nothing to replace it.
Five hours out, they drove through Huron and turned south along state highway 378. The heavy black Buick purred along the highway. Charley turned on the wiper blades intermittently as a light snow began to patter against the glass.
“Not cold enough to have ice under that snow,” he said. “Thank heavens for that.”
The flakes were large and wet as they swirled toward the windshield.
“It’s beautiful,” Hazel said, “… perfect for Christmas.”
Charley glanced over at her flushed face. She glowed with the pregnancy. “And so are you,” he said and smiled broadly.
It was the first time Hazel had seen him truly smile in so very long, and it warmed her heart. “I love you,” she said as she squeezed his hand.
An hour later, Hazel shook off her sleepiness and yawned. She’d been nodding off for some time, though never fully asleep. She touched his arm and teased. “We’ve been on the road for hours, Charley. Need I remind you a pregnant woman needs to use the facilities more often?”
Charley laughed and assured her he’d stop in the next town. By now the snow had begun to gather and it was deepening along the shoulder or the road. A short time later he slowed and pulled next to the glass cylinder pumps outside a general store. As he stepped from the car, his left foot sank clear to his ankles and he felt the wetness run into his shoe and soak his sock. He groaned.
Hazel couldn’t help but laugh. “Told you to wear your boots,” she joked. “Stay in the car.” She tightened the wool scarf around her neck and pulled her heavy wool coat as close together as her belly would allow. As she pushed against the passenger door, a sudden wind shoved back. She walked gingerly along the snow covered walkway and entered the general store while Charley had the service attendant add a few more gallons of gas to the Buick.
“Just to be on the safe side,” he said.
“You betcha’, young man. Don’t want to run out of gas out in this part of the world. Long ways between places. Where ya headed?”
“Sioux Falls,” Charley said. He glanced at his watch: 4:15 pm. “Hope to be there by seven or so.”
“Long trip for a pregnant wife,” said the man whose embroidered name tag read Gene. He replaced the gas cap and nodded toward Hazel as she returned to the car. “Maybe you folks should stay the night. They’re sayin’ drifts of six feet or more by mornin’.”
“Nah, promised the folks; plus if we stop we’ll get snowed in and never make it.”
“Some truth to that I s’pose,” Gene said, and he tipped his faded green Bullard Gasoline cap as Hazel slipped into the passenger seat. She waved as they pulled away.
The snowfall increased quickly the next few miles, and the temperature dropped. “Interstate is straight east of us,” he told Hazel. His voice trailed off in thought. Charley weighed his options. If he took 378 to the interstate, it would add an additional forty-five minutes, because for some unknown reason, 378 looped strangely north and west before heading back east. 378A, though two-lane, would be a direct shot to Interstate 75. The Buick was topped off, good tires on the rear. He slowed at the four-way corner and turned east onto the two-lane road.
Though the snow drifted higher along the sides of the roadway, the warmth of the tires on blacktop kept it free of ice. But shortly after he turned east, the wind strengthened and visibility lessened. Charlie increased the speed of the wipers and turned on his fog lights to be seen by oncoming vehicles. He glanced at Hazel’s profile. She sat rigid on the edge of the seat and peered at the road ahead as if she were the one driving.
“It’s okay, honey,” he said. He hoped he sounded more certain than he felt.
Her hands wrapped around the hugeness of her belly. Two years back, Hazel had miscarried—alone in the night, awakened by her flannel nightgown sticky to the touch. Tears ran down her cheeks as she watched the blood streaming down her legs and onto the bathroom floor. Charley had been in battle somewhere in the French countryside. She had cried in her mother’s arms for a week. This time she hadn’t told a soul besides her husband for months. And this time—she would hang on for dear life.
“Go slow, Charley; I can’t see a thing. Can you?”
Charley lied. “Still see the center line … we’ll be okay.” Inside he cursed his decision. On 378 the plows would be out by now. Here he was on a secondary road with a pregnant wife in the middle of nowhere.
Hazel patted his arm. “I’ll help you watch.” And she scooted forward, even closer to the windshield.
For the next ten minutes, Charley slowed his speed and hugged the right side of the road. Winds had picked up to 40 mph, whipping the snow into drifts. “Oh, damn!” he cursed as the right tire careened off what had to be a small boulder invisible in the now deepening snow. Charley knew instantly it was flat. He reassured Hazel and reached into the back seat for his boots. A few moments later he managed to disengage the spare tire and jack from the trunk while the blinding snow blew hard against him. The slippery wetness made the jack slip twice before it gripped the wheel well tight enough to raise the car. The bolts were frozen and didn’t want to budge. Twenty minutes later, he wiped his hands on an old rag and tightened the last lug nut just as the sun set.
The fastest speed Charley dared now was 20 mph. The wipers couldn’t keep up, and the pitch dark ribbon of blacktop blurred into a solid white ghost of itself.
“Can you see your side of the road, Charley? I can’t see the edge at all.”
He heard the fear in her voice. “It’ll be okay,” he said, his jaw set firmly. “I’ll just creep along. We should be at the Interstate soon. They’ll have the snow plows out in force.” He slowed to 15 mph and for one second thought about saying a prayer. But he couldn’t. Prayers had done him no good where he’d been; never saved a single life no matter how hard he’d talked to God. What was the point?
Then off in the distance to his left, he caught a faint flicker of light. A candle? A light bulb? He turned to Hazel, her face now ashen, and heard her guttural gasp.
“What is it?” he called out as he pulled further to the right and stopped.
“My water just broke,” she cried between clenched teeth. “The baby….”
Charley shifted into Park and jumped from the car; snow flakes as big as cotton balls melted on his face and hands. In the trunk he pushed aside tire chains, the tool box, their suitcase; his fingers finally found an old wool blanket and a handful of towels. Those he lay on the floor-board beneath Hazel’s feet to absorb the wetness. The blanket, he wound tightly around her; swaddling her in warmth as he gently laid her down on the wide bench seat. She whimpered; her eyes closed.
He bent and gently placed a kiss on each eyelid. “I’m so sorry, honey.” As he rose up, he pressed his right hand hard against his mouth to prevent an escaping sob.
“We’ll make it,” he heard her whisper. Inside Hazel was begging God. She could not lose another child. If only she’d insisted they cancel the trip.
As he slid back behind the steering wheel, Charley spotted the flicker again; the light was strong like a star. A hundred yards ahead he pulled onto a now barely passable gravel road—a drive-way he hoped. He was literally plowing the big Buick along, watching closely and estimating the distance between the rows of barbed wire and fence posts on each side. He slowly inched the car toward the flicker of golden light.
By four o’clock that afternoon Ruth was glad for the extra provisions. “This isn’t letting up.” She stood in the living room and gazed out the front window, then back at Tom who sprawled in his rocker with the Sunday newspaper strewn about him. The children sat on the floor under the seven foot Blue Spruce Tom’s ax had felled last week. The smell of pot roast baking in the oven wafted from the kitchen.
“Yep, we’ll be snowed in by morning—that’s for sure,” Tom replied.
The kids whooped with joy, knowing that meant a day off school.
“Timmy, stop that.” Ruth’s raised voice startled the child, and big tears welled in his eyes as he looked up at her from beneath the tree. He lowered the carefully wrapped present he’d been shaking to the tree skirt, and both children moved from their spots, lips drawn tightly to stave off tears.
“Oh, Ruth,” Tom said. “For heavens sake; they’re just playing with them. Shaking and weighing is all.”
Timmy sat up straighter when his father spoke up for them. “Mama, can’t we open just one?”
“You absolutely cannot. For heaven’s sakes.” Ruth’s voice bristled. “Now, both of you skedaddle upstairs and get out of my hair for awhile.”
Once the children were out of earshot, Tom met Ruth’s eyes and spoke carefully. “You can’t keep taking it out on them,” he said.
She sat down on the old floral sofa and shot Tom a look just short of a glare. Christmas was hard again this year. The fact that Tom could not, or would not, acknowledge that this would be the second Christmas since the death of their first child filled her with tremendous sadness-tinged anger.
She had managed to sit through Reverend Pederson’s sermon that morning by going over her Christmas day menu and checking off the list of gifts. The minister droned on about joy and peace and thankfulness at this special time of year, and Ruth wanted to throw up right there in the church pew. How dare he talk about happiness and joy in front of her? Ruth’s fingers formed a prayer but her lips would never say the words again. She returned to the warmth of the kitchen and started making biscuits. Slapping the dough against the marble pastry block stung her hands and felt good.
A half hour later, Ruth parted the lace panels at the kitchen window and peeked out. 4:30—almost sunset. The heavy wet snow now blew side-ways against the two-story frame house, and she could see it piling up against the barn.
“Three feet out there already, Tom. You got the horses in?”
“. . . and Tim’s famous blue-ribbon hog.” He added another log to the crackling fire and poked the embers, making them flair and spit. A moment later, he stood in the doorway adjoining the living room and kitchen.
“I’m sorry I spoke sharply. Can I give you a hand with anything?”
“No, just go up and tell the kids dinner in a half hour, please. Oh, and get Timmy to wash his hands, for Pete’s sake. Why is he allergic to soap and water?”
Tom grinned. “All boy—just like his old man,” he said and he took the steep wood stairs two at a time.
He is like his father, Ruth agreed. Tom was a simple man, a kind but simple man of the land, just like his daddy and his daddy’s daddy. Ruth had never wanted to be like her mother but here she was, pushing forty, dreams of something bigger put aside—the wife of a farmer, the mother of two living children and one dead. She felt herself pulled to the past.
Two years ago in July: the insistent rapping at the front door one sunny summer day; Timmy and Betsy racing into her arms, sopping wet and wrapped in towels; a strange man standing outside the open driver door of his still idling car, trying to explain to her what had happened; the Sheriff’s car rounding the bend up their long, steep drive way, and the sound of disappearing sirens heading north behind their woods to the lake where the children had been swimming, and at that moment a huge piece of Ruth died as she fell into the arms of her husband who had stepped behind her just seconds before.
Nothing had been right since that moment. Of course, no mother should outlive a child, ever, but Danny had been only ten years old—same age as Betsy now. Life should never be so cruel. She loved her two remaining children; most days she was able to love them like she should. It wasn’t their fault she was so flawed. It wasn’t their fault; it wasn’t Tom’s fault; only God’s. Only God’s fault that Danny hadn’t been able to swim to the middle of the lake and back. Only God who hadn’t held Danny above the water so he could breathe. Only God who didn’t push him to shore with one giant wave of His hand. Only God who didn’t give her son the strength to win the dare that he couldn’t do it.
And now a second Christmas without him.
Ruth opened her eyes and wiped away tears with the edge of her apron. She stood dead still in the center of the kitchen and settled herself. After a moment the room stopped spinning. She studied the table a moment. “Butter,” she remembered. She opened the door to the Frigidaire and located the glass dish. It had been her mother’s—dead three years now. A farmer’s wife, as was she. And a farmer’s wife had to be strong.
She found the matches in the junk drawer and lit the advent candles. “Get down here,” she yelled. Ice splatting against the windows caused Ruth to peer out one more time. Her nerves were always on edge when these Nor’easters blew in, as if they were sweeping straight through her as well. They had had the warmest November on record but this looked to be a full blown blizzard. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? She could swear … “Tom,” Ruth yelled, “Come—quick.”
He walked into the kitchen with Betsy and Timmy in tow.
She pointed excitedly out the window at something in the distance. He ambled toward her. “Will you please just look?”
“I don’t see anything,” he said as he reached her side.
“No, no—there,” she cried again, “Lights. I know they’re lights.’
He squinted into the whiteness. “Ruth, there’s nothing there. I don’t see a thing.” He watched for a few seconds, just to appease her, she knew; then shook his head. “Can’t see anything in this storm, Ruth. Probably a falling star or maybe an animal ….”
“An animal, Tom? Get your shovel and some sand—we’re going down there. Some one may be in trouble.”
“Are you crazy, woman? We could die out there.”
“Put the plow on the truck,” she said.
“Already did— hours ago,” he said. “Women!” he mumbled under his breath. He slipped on his Sherpa jacket and leather gloves while Ruth pulled on her knee-high boots and tightened the top button of her coat closely at her throat.
“Let’s go, woman,” he said, then softened his tone. “Let’s go check out your light.” She knew he didn’t believe her, and she knew he was mostly upset at the hot dinner now growing cold on the stove.
“Betsy, you kids serve your selves. Don’t turn on the stove . . . and stay in this house. And pour Billy a glass of milk, okay? We’ll be back shortly.” She touched the top of her daughter’s head; then unexpectedly for both of them, she pulled Betsy to her breast. “That’s a big girl,” she said.
At the bottom of the hill, the large sedan crept slowly forward. Hazel cried softly, fear rising in her heart and in her belly. “We’ll be okay,” Charley crooned. Hazel grabbed hold of his words and tried to believe them. And then the unthinkable happened. He felt it—never saw it.
The deer bounded out of the clearing between the trees and in mid-jump struck the hood of the car, and the engine seized with the weight.
A white silence filled the Buick. Terror trapped their voices. He tried the ignition and heard it click. Cold air came out in a gale from the front vents. There was no choice. He jumped from the car and rummaged among the presents in the back seat. A tattered old comforter lay rumpled underneath it all, and he grabbed it and placed it over Hazel.
He stuffed a few odds and ends of clothing from the back seat inside his winter coat and wrapped the now wet towels from the floorboard around his gloved hands to protect them from frost-burn.
“I’ll be back with help,” he whispered. “I’ll be quick, I promise. It isn’t far.”
“Oh, please, Charley, don’t leave me here. I can’t ….” Hazel’s eyes pleaded with him to stay. She couldn’t be alone, not again, not this time. The contractions were closer, but she couldn’t tell Charley. Hazel closed her eyes and whispered, “Okay.” He had to go for help; she had to let him leave her. But oh, God, what if he got lost between here and there? You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. What if? She shut down her thoughts; slammed them like a window.
Charley looked around the car to find something more to cover her with. How was she going to stay warm enough? This could take a half hour or more; he had no idea how long the drive-way was or if there was even a house at the end of it. What if there isn’t? a small devilish question arose.
“There’s a house up ahead, Hazel. I saw the light. I’ll be back very soon.”
He bent to kiss her and looked into her eyes. “When did you have your last contraction?”
“Quite some time ago actually,” she lied, “but if my water has broken….” Hazel wouldn’t let herself continue. “Go, go quickly,” she said and forced a smile.
Within minutes, Tom plowed onto the mile-long drive way with Hazel beside him in the cab. He cruised at ten mph— the snow flaring on each side of the blades and onto the embankment. Within five minutes, they were two-thirds of the way down the hill. And then he saw Ruth’s lights.
“I told you …,” she said, then stopped mid-sentence. “Thank you.”
Then, like an apparition forming, they saw the outline of a young man, frantically waving a white rag. Frigid chunks blew in as Tom rolled down his window.
“We’re stuck near the bottom of the hill. My wife … the baby …”
Tom yelled above the wind. “Get in.”
Ruth slid over, and the young man came around the truck and climbed in.
“What’s your name,” she asked.
“Charley, ma’am, Charley Weaver. My wife, Hazel, she’s in labor.” He sobbed.
“We’ll get there in time; don’t you worry,” Ruth said. She patted his arm.
Tom pushed the truck to higher rpm’s, testing the traction. The tires gripped.
Ruth called out first. “Tom—there,” she pointed. She felt Charley open the truck door before they came to a full stop.
When the glare from Tom’s headlamps struck the Buick’s windshield, Hazel righted herself onto one elbow. Tears streamed. “Thank you, God.” In seconds, Charley was lifting her carefully from the Buick.
Ruth patted Hazel’s hands and murmured encouragement as Charley and Tom lifted her onto the wide seat. Tom turned the heater to High. Once Charley had her settled, he joined Ruth in the bed of the truck. Tom had no choice but to continue down to the main road; couldn’t risk ditching them all by making a turn at this point. He saw the pain drawn on Hazel’s face as she reclined against the passenger door. Ole Doc Johnson would meet them at the clinic if he phoned. The nearest hospital was hours away.
As the truck slowed, Ruth sensed her husband weighing the options—twenty-five miles to town, but probably an hour in this storm, if they didn’t slide off the road. She tapped loudly on the rear window with her gloved fist, made eye contact in the rearview mirror and shook her head, “no.” Tom put the truck in first gear and slowly passed Charley’s car. When he reached the bottom of the hill, he made a u-turn back to the house.
After Charley carried his wife upstairs to the Whalen’s bedroom, he joined Tom in the living room, and the two men shared a bottle of whiskey by the down stairs fire. Ruth helped Hazel disrobe, wrapped her in two heavy quilts, and talked her through the next round of labor pains. She had delivered a foal or two over the years and the baby heifer last spring. Her own babies had been born at the county hospital in safe, secure surroundings.
Hazel’s contractions were close together, and Ruth could see the beginning of the crown. “Your first?” Ruth asked the young woman.
“First to be born,” Hazel answered.
Ruth nodded; her eyes full of understanding. “Hard to lose one; I know.”
Hazel shook with the force of bearing down through the next contraction.
“Betsy,” Ruth called down the hall. Timmy and Betsy sat on the floor in the hallway outside their bedrooms, excited and fearful of what was happening behind their parents’ bedroom door.
“Boil some water in that big container we use for sweet corn … and hurry. Timmy, get every towel you can out of the bathroom and bring them to the doorway.”
“Ah, ma,” he whined.
“You don’t have to come in; get them close enough I can reach them for heavens sake.” She didn’t have time for this nonsense. As she felt inside the birth canal, Ruth cringed. The baby’s head was turned face up, and Hazel was too small to deliver without turning him.
“Hazel, the baby has dropped, but don’t push no matter how much you want to, okay?” She saw Hazel raise up enough to meet her eyes.
“It’s okay, isn’t it?” Hazel said. “Everything’s okay?”
Ruth hesitated but she needed the young mother’s assistance if they were going to do this alone. “Everything will be fine,” she assured her. “But the baby still needs to turn a little. It’s important not to push right now.”
Hazel dropped her head back and tightly closed her eyes.
Ruth watched as Hazel clinched her hands into fists so tight they nearly bled, but she managed to ride the next wave and the next without pushing.
Timmy dropped the towels and peeked into the room at his mother kneeling before the woman covered in blankets and quilts.
“Tim,” she said quickly before he could run, “Go get your father . . . now.”
Outside the half-closed door, Ruth and Tom spoke softly about going for Doc Johnson. The Johnsons lived on the northern edge of Bullard, thirty miles and a blizzard away, and even with the snow plow on the front of the truck it would take time they didn’t have.
“I’ll get him on the phone, Ruth. Would that help, to know what to do?”
Ruth nodded; it was better than doing nothing and perhaps Doc could talk her through this.
As Tom headed for the stairs, Ruth called, “Don’t tell the young man … not yet, you hear me?”
“I hear ya,” he said and clumped solidly down the wooden stairs.
“Have another glass of that there whiskey, son,” Tom said as he put a hand on Charley’s shoulder. “I’m just gonna call old doc Johnson, just to check in, you know?”
Charley nodded and his hands shook as he poured another jigger into his glass. He could hear Tom’s murmurs from the kitchen, but he couldn’t make out words.
On the wall opposite the sofa hung a brass cross with the draped and dying Jesus nailed aloft; not much of an object really—a ten-cent store crucifix, but it held his gaze. He wasn’t sure how to pray anymore, but words from his past began to fall from his lips. A moment later Charley found himself on his knees begging for the life of both his unborn child and his wife.
Over the next half hour Tom made several trips up and down the stairs, sharing directions from Doc Johnson, calling out encouragement to Ruth and the young woman, and delivering bits of news to Charley. Between phone calls, the men talked about wheat yields, grasshopper infestations, and the cost of farming these days. Tom nodded when Charley talked about the red ink in his account books.
“Yep, me too,” he said.
After awhile the conversation drifted to the war, and Charley found himself telling Tom more than he had shared with anyone since his return. He’d been holding it in, not wanting to upset Hazel or frighten his parents.
“Terrible things,” Tom said and he passed the whiskey bottle over one more time. “Took brave men to bring that war to an end. You should be proud, young man. Me—4F due to my eyes and the need for my crops.”
Their talk slowed as did the clock. The men could only wait helplessly.
Timmy and Betsy now sat just outside the door, leaned against the wall. They hadn’t said a word; hadn’t blinked an eye for the past hour. They refused to go to bed when their father scolded them. Timmy hugged their yellow lab; gripped him with both arms. Betsy put an arm around Timmy; her cat Mitzy nestled and sleeping on her lap.
“It will be fine,” she assured him. “There’ll be a baby soon.”
Just before midnight, Ruth called downstairs for Charley. All her attempts to turn the infant had failed, and both mother and infant were in extreme stress. Hazel had slipped into a quiet state of semi-consciousness.
Tom tapped gently on the door, and Charley stepped in ahead of him.
Ruth felt a helplessness akin to the day she’d heard the tapping on their front door, two years ago. She could not handle the death of another child; a child whose life now lay in her hands.
“I’m going to give it one last try,” Ruth whispered, wiping a stray hair from her eyes. “Charley, grip her shoulders as tight as you can and don’t let her raise up.”
He stared at Hazel’s gray face and shuddered; then walked to the head of the bed and did exactly as Ruth directed.
Ruth put one hand firmly on Hazel’s abdomen and the other into place around the baby and rotated. Nothing. She started to curse God, and then she couldn’t. Instead she prayed silently. When she looked up, she saw Tom behind her in the doorway, his head bowed in prayer. Charley held Hazel’s shoulders still, his eyes closed, mumbling The Lord’s Prayer. She turned back to Hazel, slid her fingers a centimeter deeper and suddenly felt the baby’s slippery body slide into position.
Hazel cried out in pain, and her eyes opened wide. Her body took over with the last contraction, and the baby slid into Ruth’s welcoming hands.
Tom glanced at his watch—“12:07,” he called from doorway.
A moment after the first cry, Ruth wrapped the infant girl in one of Betsy’s old pink baby blankets and placed her in Hazel’s arms. Hazel smiled tiredly. “Not quite Christmas,” she said, “but close enough.” She gave her husband a weak smile. “He doesn’t believe in angels,” she said to Ruth. “But I do.”
Charley knelt down beside the bed and wrapped his arms around her and their tiny daughter. A tear slid down his cheek as he held her to him.
Hazel looked up at him with a question in her eyes. “What should we name her?” she whispered. “She was supposed to be an Adam.”
Charley gave a sigh of relief; then smiled. “Perhaps we should name her Faith.”
Ruth was exhausted. She washed the blood from her hands in the bucket of warm soapy water, toweled them dry and slipped through the bedroom door, leaving it open in case she was needed. Tom was waiting just outside, and she wept openly into his warm flannel shirt.
“You worked a miracle,” he whispered in her ear.
She shook her head. “No, not me,” she said.
When Ruth turned from Tom’s arms to watch the young couple, all the coldness she’d carried for so long had melted.
Charley held Hazel and the newborn baby girl named Faith. Betsy and Timmy peeked around the door-frame at the infant; the dog and cat, still right beside them. Tom gazed through the open door with a look of adoration.
Suddenly, Ruth’s breath caught as she recognized the familiar Christmas tableau. Outside a lone star peeked through the heavy snow-laden clouds, shining the miracle of Christmas on the house below. Church was miles away and the snow would muffle any sound, but Ruth was certain she heard the carillon chiming from the bell tower.
Her gaze was drawn to the bedroom window. When she approached, Ruth gasped. The bright star shined down on a tall, thin boy standing in the new fallen snow. He had grown taller, but she’d have recognized him anywhere. She leaned against the window—left hand pressed against the frozen glass; the other slowly lifting in a wave; a lone tear running along her cheek. The boy returned her greeting and blew her a kiss as he turned and walked away.