I had been walking for quite some time, along a trail that looked to be an old, old wagon road, up into the hills where some big white oaks and hickories stood.  I figured the acorns would be gone, but it was a beautiful spot not far from an ancient homestead where there was nothing left but a rock foundation, and perhaps the ghosts of generations past that had loved the Ozarks then as I do now. 

I had been walking for quite some time, along a trail that looked to be an old, old wagon road, up into the hills where some big white oaks and hickories stood.  I figured the acorns would be gone, but it was a beautiful spot not far from an ancient homestead where there was nothing left but a rock foundation, and perhaps the ghosts of generations past that had loved the Ozarks then as I do now.  

There were some green grass patches there that might attract some deer, and well-worn paths crossed the ridge top, with nice-sized hoof prints frozen into what had been soft ground a few weeks before.  I took off my orange cap and vest, and stowed them in my pack.  It is sacrilege to wear such obnoxious garb whilst clutching an old muzzleloader rifle in such beautiful woods. So I would just put on my old fur cap and pretend I was Daniel Boone, and my muzzleloader was Ol’ Betsy.

I sat against the base of a big tree, and knew the sun’s rays upon me might not make me inconspicuous. But what the heck, it was warmth.  In total relaxation, I watched the old road opening before me, visualizing a ten-point buck…  or even a nice fat fork-horn.  The former would make little but hamburger, something smaller might be fit for steaks.  Then I happened to think about how far it was to my boat, and wondered if I wanted to really shoot something I had to drag that far. Maybe a young doe would be just as good.  Oh well, you worry about things when it’s time to worry about things, not before.  The sun was high and I warmed up a bit, and I dozed just a little.

I guess I must have slept a little better than I thought, because I had a hard time waking up.  Things seemed different around me as I awakened, and the sun was gone.  Some light snow was falling, and there was a hunter walking the old road toward me.  He was slender and tall, with a long rifle resting in the crook of his arm, a long leather coat below his waist and a cap that looked like something from the Civil War.  His boots were dark with grease, with high leather leggings and worn wool pants above them.  

He startled me just a bit, getting so close, catching me sound asleep.  But there wasn’t anything foreboding in his face.  It looked to be carved, with a prominent nose and brow, deep lines in his cheeks and a half-inch of salt-and-pepper whiskers over most of his face.  His eyes were deep set and dark, and as he stepped carefully toward me, I noticed he limped a little.

“Don’t mind me, stranger,” he said in a quiet voice, “I don’t mean to problemize yore huntin’, I’ve wandered a bit farther than I meant.”  He just squatted on his haunches a couple of yards from me and pulled a couple of pieces of dried meat from a leather pack on a long sling around his shoulder.  “Have a bite if you’d a mind to, I brung plenty with me.”  

I took a piece of the jerky, but declined the bread, an old flat looking biscuit of some kind.  I thanked him and told him I was a bit embarrassed to be caught sleeping while hunting… made me look like a greenhorn of sorts.  I asked where he came from, and he took it literally.

“I got a cabin just up the river at the forks, a wife and four young ‘uns… but my folks came from Tennesee when I was just a boy.  Times has been hard lately and I strayed up here to these parts to see if’n I could find somethin’ bigger ‘n squirrels.  The deer hit my corn purty hard an’ then they thinned out. The smokehouse is empty right now.  You had any luck?”

I told him I hadn’t.  I said I thought I might hunt ‘til Christmas Eve though, just to escape the crowds in town, not so much concerned with shooting anything.

“Hit’s been a spell since I was to a town,” I could hear the Tennessee in him.  “But right at Christmas I may hitch the wagon and take the woman and the kids in.  We got a Christmas tree all fixed up an’ I’ve made some toys for all of ‘em, wooden guns an’ whistles and dolls an the like.  Hit’s a glorious time.”

Up to then, I thought he was maybe just spoofin’ me, the way that us muzzleloader hunters sometimes do, but I began to look hard at him, and notice that as the snow fell, the surroundings I had awakened in seemed far different. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck.

“I don’t mean to be nosy,” he said to me, “but ain’t you that writer feller who comes to these hills to hunt some, and fishes the river in the spring?  I think maybe you and I sees things in common a lot, believin’ as we do.  Ain’t it a sight how folks is forgot what Christmas is all about in their modern ways and fancy things?  Tell ‘em, those folks you write to, that if they forget what the truths their grandfathers honored, the days of this great nation is numbered.”  

I just nodded my head--- who would listen to me nowadays!  The jerky was good, but very salty.  I put most of it in my pocket and nibbled on a small piece.  “I know what Christmas is about,” I told him, “People who forget become miserable this time of year, they get into a tormented routine they just can’t seem to escape. It’s a deep rut for lots of folks.”

 “I like your stories,” he told me.  “But I like what my grandmother used to read to us at Christmas from her old Bible, by a writer named Luke.  Tell folks to not get past Christmas without reading Luke’s story.  It’ll help ‘em considerable with their lives.”

He stood up to leave, favoring that leg.  I asked if he had been wounded in the war, thinking about Iraq. “I took a mini-ball in the leg at Wilson’s Creek,” he told me.  He stood there and looked at me, not saying anything, wanting to see my reaction. And then I realized, as he slowly turned and disappeared down the road, that surely I had just been in the midst of a very realistic dream.  And I closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep.

I awakened to see a light skiff of snow around me; my butt was sore and my foot was numb.  I grinned about that goofy dream, and realized I needed to get back toward my boat.  The snow was still light and there was no wind.  I looked for tracks in the road before me and there were none.  That was something of a relief.

It was dark when I got home, and I had the urge to write something.  I left my coat in the floor and Gloria picked it up, complaining about how I never put my coat where it ought to be. I heard her say…   “Where in the world did you get this jerky, it’s so salty I can’t see how you could eat it.”

I am going back to that ridge top after Christmas.  He will find me, I am sure.

In the meantime, I hope you and your family will observe an old-time Christmas, with a lot of peace and happiness, and goodwill toward your fellow man that lasts way past next summer. And if you liked this story, you ought to read the one Luke wrote.