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December 4th 1960
Johnny Gage sat on the snow bank shivering while the snow turned into slush as it melted into his hair; the ends of his dark hair were already starting to stiffen and freeze in the below zero temperatures. He sniffed and wiped away an errant tear that ran down his cheek as he used a corner of his threadbare sleeve to wipe away the small stream of blood coming from his nose.
The pain of eleven year old, Jared Little Crow’s fist still lingered on his face, making his eyes water. He could still here the angry yells of Jared and his cousin, thirteen year old Elijah coming across the open school yard; “Hey there’s Gage…let’s go get the filthy breed and make him pay for showing me up in history class…again.”
Johnny had tried to outrun the two boys, which under normal circumstances would have been an easy task, but the boots he was wearing were a size and a half too large for his feet. They had come out of the poor box and had been the only pair that had even come close to fitting his feet.
He was a small boy for ten, but he was still the fastest runner on the reservation… which was a good thing considering how many times he had needed the speed to outrun his attackers. Unfortunately, because of those too large boots, Johnny had had some difficulty trying to outrun the two boys this time and it hadn’t taken them very long to catch up to Johnny and knock him to the ground. When they had grown tired of hitting him, they shoved handfuls of wet snow down his tattered thin jacket and mashed his face into a snow bank.
Angry tears spilled down Johnny’s cheeks as Jared’s cruel taunts echoed in his ears. … “My father says your mother brought shame to the rez by marrying that white man … it serves them right, getting killed like they did. My grandmother says it was a judgment upon them.”
Elijah scoffed and kicked more snow in Johnny’s face. “Yeah…look at him. He’s an apple Indian, Jared… red on the outside…white on the inside.”
The two boys had given his face one final shove into the snow before they ran off laughing.
Johnny stood up and unzipped his jacket, shaking out as much of the snow as he could. He slowly made his way over to a log that was sitting half-buried in the snow and sat down on it, feeling utterly despondent. If this had happened just three months ago, he would have gone home to his house where his mother would have held him in one of her comforting hugs and tended to his injuries. She would have given him a nice warm bath and fed him homemade cookies with a mug of hot chocolate. His father would have gone down to the school and complained on his son’s behalf, demanding something be done about the schoolyard bullying.
But that was three months ago, before the tragic incident that had taken the lives of his parents. With his parents gone, there was no one to stick up for him…no one to protect him. There was no justice for Johnny… not any more. So much had changed in just twelve short weeks.
Johnny glanced down at his arm and absentmindedly rubbed it. It didn’t hurt anymore, and the cast had been removed six weeks ago. It had been the last physical reminder of that terrible night in September. That was when he had lost his parents … and everything else that was good in his world.
September 23rd 1960
It had been a wonderful Saturday for Katie and Roderick Gage, and ten year old Johnny. His father’s boss had asked Rod to make the trip over to the neighbouring county to look at some horses he was thinking of buying. Roderick Gage, was the best horseman around… he was also the foreman on the ranch. It was his usual custom to take young Johnny on these trips with him. It had always been their father and son time alone together. But that day, Johnny’s mother, Kate had decided to join her two men on their little outing. She had packed a picnic lunch and they had decided to make a family day of it.
It had been on the return trip home, when a group of men in a dark pickup truck had purposely run the Gage vehicle off the narrow, winding road, sending it over a steep embankment. Johnny’s father had died on impact when the car had burst into flames on impact with the bottom of the ravine. Johnny and his mother had been ejected from the car onto the ground.
Johnny had sustained some cuts and bruises along with a broken right arm.
Unfortunately, the car had rolled over the top of his mother’s body, crushing her. He could still hear her dying words to him that night as she lay mortally wounded on the side of the road.
With the last of her strength, Johnny’s mother had taken off the necklace she had always worn for as long as Johnny could remember.
“Son…Johnny… listen baby…mama wants you to listen very carefully… I want you to take this necklace and I want you to wear it always… promise me okay? I want you to remember that as long as you have this around your neck, that you and daddy and mama will always be together … in our hearts.”
The necklace had been made by his father at the time of their “secret” engagement. The history of the necklace and how much his mother cherished it had always been one of young Johnny’s favourite stories. To this day it still held, concealed within its soft leather, the engagement ring his father had bought for his mother when she was a young girl of seventeen.
Johnny had cried and begged her not to leave him… begged her not to die, but it had been to no avail. Her injuries had been too grave and her body couldn’t survive the horrendous damage that had been inflicted upon it.
December 4th 1960
Johnny felt hot tears running down his face as he remembered his mother’s final request to him.
“I want you to promise me that you’ll grow up to be a good man…that you’ll make your daddy and me proud.”
He had every intention of fulfilling her requests … it had been the second part of her request that he was struggling with.
“ … I want you to go and stay with your grandfather and grandmother now… you be a good boy for them okay? …
Johnny had been trying his hardest to fulfill the last part of her request, but he had been failing miserably. He tried his best to be a good boy for his grandparents. He had been living with them ever since his release from the reservation clinic after the accident.
But right from the get-go, Johnny realized that his mother’s parents were nothing like the traditional image of grandparents he’d always pictured of sweet natured, grey haired people who were wise, caring and forgiving. They certainly were not caring… nor did he find them particularly wise… and as for the forgiving part? Oh they were forgiving all right. They were for giving slaps across his face, for giving him the razor strap across his back, and for giving copious amounts of neglect.
The morning his grandmother had shown up to take him to his new home had been a nightmare for the grieving boy. He knew that his grandparents had never been to his home while his parents had been alive, and he could never remember having ever met them, so he hadn’t been entirely sure what to expect.
One thing was for sure… he hadn’t expected the chilly reception that he came up against when his grandmother arrived at the clinic and without so much as a word, took him by his uninjured hand and dragged him out to her car. He had tried several times to start a conversation with his grandmother, only to be rebuffed and told in no uncertain terms that the only reason he was being taken in by his grandparents was because they were legally and morally responsible for him by tribal law.
Upon arrival at his new home, he was ushered into a small woodshed that was attached to the kitchen of the small but neat clapboard, saltbox style house. The back section which was being used as a combination woodshed and back entrance to the home was somewhat cooler than the rest of the house, and it appeared to be where the two family dogs resided during the night or inclement weather. In the far corner next to the wood pile there was a small pallet on the floor. On top of it sat a heavy wool blanket and the pillow that had once been on Johnny’s own bed at home. The beautiful handmade quilt his mother had made for him was nowhere to be seen.
His grandmother informed him that this was going to be his new room, and he was expected to remain in this room and out of his grandmother’s sight during the hours that he wasn’t in school. At supper time he was expected to fetch in fire wood and feed the animals. This included the two dogs, several barn cats and a single horse that was housed in a large barn out behind the house. As far as Johnny could tell, the horse had never been given a name… in fact none of the animals appeared to have been given names.
If Johnny had thought his grandmother’s treatment of him had been harsh, it was nothing compared to his grandfather. The man was positively frightening. The old man glowered at him, and referred to him as the little whelp. Johnny quickly found out that he could be dealt out severe punishment for even looking at his grandfather the wrong way. It became abundantly clear to him that these people resented his presence in their home… and his grandfather in particular seemed to hate him.
That very first evening he was there, Johnny had been given the strap for daring to eat in the kitchen. His grandfather made it clear that he was expected to stand by the table and serve them their supper, while he stood by and watched. Once his grandfather had finished and left the table, he was expected to do the dishes and feed the animals. Once that task was finished he would be given a plate of leftovers, which he was expected to eat in his room. After that he was to go to bed.
That night, was the first of many nights that Johnny cried himself to sleep. It had been such a radical change for a boy who had been showered with love from both his father and his mother. The frightened and shell-shocked child, who was still reeling from his parents’ deaths, had had this hellish new existence heaped upon his already wounded soul.
Johnny quickly learned not to talk about his parents or his previous life. Doing either one of those things would earn him a hiding… or a vicious slap across his face. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what it was that he had done to deserve such treatment. He tried in vain to discern what it was he was doing wrong so he could correct the unwanted behaviour…but no matter how good he tried to be, he still seemed to invoke the distain and ire of his grandparents.
Upon his release from the clinic he had also discovered that his parents had been summarily buried at some currently unknown location. He was forbidden to even ask about them, or consider being allowed to go and visit their graves. He hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye or to properly mourn them. He also discovered that except for a handful of his clothes, all his possessions had been disposed of. His grandparents had sold or destroyed all his families personal possessions, sold their home, and gotten rid of his best friend in the whole world…his beloved Malamute Mapiya.
His only real possession had been the necklace that his mother had given him the night she died. He had been wearing it around his neck when he had been found injured on the road beside his mother’s corpse, by a passing car. The authorities had been called and he had been put into the back of the reservation police car and taken to the clinic.
The medical staff at the clinic had allowed him to keep it, more out of disinterest than compassion. The day his grandmother picked him up at the clinic it was still concealed underneath his clothing. After that first night in his new home, Johnny had figured out that if he wanted to keep his necklace, he would need to keep it hidden.
~ ~ ~
He was scared, lonely and confused, and for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong that had made his grandparents hate him so much … and he didn’t know how to fix it. He missed his parents terribly and wished for the umpteenth time that he had died with them on the night of the accident. What good had it done him to survive that night, only to be cast into this nightmarish existence?
Finally the boy stood, zipped his jacket up and sighed. He was alive, and he had survived, and the only thing he had to keep him going, was his promise to his mother to be a good boy and to grow up to be a good man, just like his father had been.
Johnny wiped his tears and slowly began to make his way back to the woodshed. He wanted to get home and finish his homework before his grandfather got home from work.
His grandfather worked at the local trading post from nine in the morning until five in the evening. Johnny was allowed one bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk before he left for school each morning, but he was never given any lunch. Johnny had gotten into the habit of saving his bread from the night before and hiding it under his pillow so he could slip it into his coat pocket for his lunch. He also snuck an apple out of the barrel in the barn each morning after he finished his chores. The piece of bread and the apple usually made up his lunchtime meal, which he usually ate behind the small clapboard school where no one would see him and he would be left in peace.
Supper was usually served at six thirty after which, his grandfather would head back out the door by quarter past seven. Ever since Johnny’s mother had died, his grandfather had taken to spending his evenings in the local saloon getting drunk. His grandmother would turn off the kitchen lights and head into the living room to listen to the radio, watch the small black and white television, or read until ten o’clock, at which time she would turn on the front porch light for his grandfather and go to bed.
His grandfather usually stumbled in sometime between midnight and one in the morning. Johnny feared that time of night when his grandfather would return home. He would always heave a sigh of relief when the old man staggered up the front porch steps and into the house. On those nights, he would continue on up the stairs and fall into his bed to sleep it off.
It was on those occasions when his grandfather would wander out to the barn to have a smoke before bed that would send and ocean of terror running through Johnny’s small body. That usually meant he was not as drunk as usual, and it also meant he remembered that Johnny was sleeping in the woodshed. On those nights Johnny knew his grandfather would come home angrier than usual … and it also meant he was in for a beating.
Johnny always tried his hardest to stay awake until his grandfather returned home each night. If he heard his grandfather out by the barn, he would slip out from under his blanket and hide himself behind the woodpile out of sight. On those occasions, his grandfather just assumed Johnny had stayed out too late doing the chores and that his grandmother had locked him out. She often locked the boy out of the house to ensure she wouldn’t have to see him during the days when there was no school. On those nights, Johnny slept in the barn, nestled in the hay under a horse blanket.
Unfortunately, one in the morning was too late for a small boy of ten to stay awake, and most nights Johnny invariably fell asleep despite his resolve to stay awake. When that happened, he would end up going to school the next morning with a split lip or a black eye… the other bruises were usually hidden underneath his clothes. Sadly, none of the teachers or other adults on the reservation ever questioned where those injuries had come from… most of them didn’t care…most of them thought he deserved it.
~ ~ ~
Upon his arrival at home, Johnny quickly glanced at the clock and noticed that it was getting close to five. He immediately went to the woodpile and grabbed an armful of wood. He quietly slipped into the kitchen and filled the wood box beside the large woodstove.
His grandmother was standing at the counter peeling carrots and never even so much as turned around to acknowledge his presence in the room. Johnny would have loved to have gone to the ice box and grabbed a cold glass of milk and a cookie, like he used to do at his parents’ home… but he knew such a request would earn him slap in the face and a dressing down… it would also mean he would be sent out to the woodshed without any supper. So Johnny held his peace and slipped back out to the woodpile for another armload of wood which he deposited in the living room beside the fireplace.
Once that task was completed, Johnny went out to the barn to feed the cats and the dogs. The horse would not be fed until later in the evening, although Johnny always stopped and brushed out the horse’s coat every day after school. He had secretly named the young paint Misukakla ki…or, younger brother. The two watch dogs had also been given names. The first dog, which was some kind of shepherd/lab mix, was a friendly older dog that Johnny had taken to calling, Wecahcala … or, old man. The other dog, which was obviously not much more than a puppy appeared to be a husky mix that never seemed to get enough to eat… Johnny had simply christened him Loci…or, hungry. It was a state Johnny found himself in most days now.
Most of the cats were half wild and he never bothered trying to name them all… he wasn’t even sure how many of them there were. The number fluctuated as some would wander off and new ones would appear in the barn at meal time. But the horse and the dogs quickly became his only friends. They would always sit patiently and listen to him as he vented out his frustrations or speak to them about his fears. The dogs, being intuitive creatures, seemed to sense his sadness and they would sidle up to him and comfort him, when it all became too much for him and he would give in to the urge to cry.
The animals, like Johnny, seemed to have been viewed by his grandparents as nothing more than working animals, and had obviously never been shown any outward affection. Consequently, they quickly attached themselves to Johnny and all the love and care he heaped upon them. By the end of the first week of Johnny’s arrival they had formed their own little family, giving each other comfort in an otherwise cold and cheerless environment.
Once Johnny had finished with the animals, he made his way back into the woodshed to do his homework, while he waited to be summoned to serve the evening meal and do the dishes. This promised to be one of the better days. It appeared as if his grandmother was making a beef stew for supper. That meant that there would be plenty left over for Johnny. The nights when his grandmother served up fried chicken or pork chops, there was usually only some potatoes, vegetable and bread left over. His grandmother never cooked a chicken leg or a pork chop for Johnny. As far as desserts went…those nights when it was served, there was never any thought of dishing a portion up for Johnny. Those delicacies had become a thing of the past.
Once the evening meal was over and his grandfather had left the house, his grandmother made her way into the living room and turned on the radio to listen to the local news. Johnny picked up the small wooden bowl that had been assigned to him, and filled it to the brim with the hot stew and set it aside for later. He then went over to the breadbox and sliced himself off a small wedge of bread and set it beside the dish.
As luck would have it, his grandfather had asked for milk this evening, which meant that the pitcher had been left sitting out on the table for Johnny to clear away. On those rare occasions Johnny would fill his small plastic cup with milk instead of water and quickly gulp it down. Johnny knew that to go to the fridge and take the milk out himself for a glass, was a no-no. But since nothing specific had ever been said about when it was already out on the table, Johnny usually availed himself of a glass whenever the opportunity presented itself. He knew if he had asked about it, then the answer would most certainly have been an unequivocal no… but on his first evening there, his grandmother had clearly stated that Johnny was only allowed to eat anything leftover on the table after his grandparents had finished, so he figured technically the milk was left on the table, so he decided to take advantage of any loophole he could find. Still, he never lingered about when milk was available, and he never waited to drink his milk with the rest of his meal. He quickly drank down his glass and put the milk away.
Johnny wiped away any traces of a milk mustache and made his way over to the sink and filled the basin with hot soapy water. He washed the dishes and set them on the rack to drain. Once the dishes had been dried and put away, he picked up his bowl and piece of bread and went into the woodshed to eat. He carefully wrapped his bread in a clean cloth and slipped it under his pillow. Then he quickly downed the now tepid stew. He rinsed out his bowl and made his way out to the barn to feed and water the horse and clean out his stall for the night, making sure the horse had lots of fresh clean bedding.
By the time all his evening chores were finished it was past eight thirty. Johnny made his way back into the woodshed. He reached overhead until his hand fell upon the long string that had been tied to the end of the pull chain that was attached to a single forty watt light bulb that hung suspended from the ceiling.
He made his way over to his pallet on the floor and sat down. He slid his shirt off and slipped out of his faded corduroy pants. He reached under his pillow and pulled out a pair of faded sweatpants and a sweatshirt and slipped into them as he shivered in the cool air of the woodshed. His room wasn’t totally without heat. In the wall next to the door that led into the kitchen there was a small grate that allowed the warmer air from the kitchen to drift into the woodshed. However, once the evening meal was over, the large woodstove that heated the kitchen was allowed to burn down so by the time the morning came the kitchen had cooled down drastically, meaning the woodshed was cold enough that Johnny could usually see his breath in the morning when he woke up.
Johnny quickly wrapped his wool blanket around himself and leaned down into his pillow as he opened up his school reader and went over his spelling words again before the test tomorrow. He was soon joined by the two dogs. The older dog curled up on an old blanket in the far corner of the room, but the younger dog crawled up beside Johnny on his pallet. Johnny didn’t mind the dogs’ presence on his bed. Not only was it company, but the added warmth the dog provided was always welcome.
After an hour of reading over his list of words, Johnny closed his speller and pulled out from behind the woodpile a tattered old comic book he had found a couple weeks earlier that had been discarded in the rubbish bin behind the general store. The cover of it had been torn so it couldn’t be sold. The store owner had obviously considered it trash and had tossed it into the can behind the store.
Johnny had been hiding in the alley behind store at the time. He had run in there to escape Jared and his cronies on his way home from school. They had chased after him in an effort to teach him yet another lesson about staying in his place, after he had beaten Jared in the weekly spelling bee. Johnny had slipped into the alley behind the store and ducked down behind the trash cans and out of sight of the group of boys chasing him. It had been when he had stood up to make his way home that he had spied the Superman comic book. He had reached in and picked it out of the trash can and stuffed into his jacket. It was a treasure beyond value, and Johnny had taken to reading and re-reading it in the long hours between supper and bedtime.
Johnny nestled himself into a small nest on his pallet, with his blanket pulled tightly around him. Loci snuggled in close to Johnny’s body and rested his chin on his lap. Johnny’s yawned and rubbed his eyes while he read the comic. His eyes began to feel like they had sand in them, and he shook his head in an effort to stay awake… he couldn’t go to sleep until he made sure his grandfather wouldn’t be coming in the back door.
Johnny hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but obviously he had drifted off, because the next thing he knew the door of the woodshed was crashing open as his drunken grandfather stumbled into shed with a razor strap in his hands. Johnny’s eyes opened wide in terror at the sight of the drunken, angry man that was looming over him with his arm raised over his head; the razor strap poised to come down across Johnny’s back. He knew he was in trouble when he seen the absolute look of fury and hatred in his grandfather’s eyes.
Loci scrambled out of the way and cowered in the corner behind the door. Johnny instinctively curled up into a ball as the leather strap came down across his shoulders and back. Johnny couldn’t help but cry out as the leather stung his flesh through the thin material of his shirt. Over and over again the belt slapped against Johnny’s body while his grandfather screamed at him while wildly brandishing the strap.
“You worthless piece of shit… my Katie would still be alive if it wasn’t for you and your bastard of a father…it’s all your fault…you should be the dead one, not my little girl.”
Johnny finally managed to get his arms underneath his body and managed to push himself up onto his knees. He made a valiant attempt to make it across the shed to the open door, in an effort to escape out to the barn and hide until his grandfather fell asleep and sobered up. He heaved himself up onto his feet and began to run towards the open door. He had almost made it outside when he felt his grandfather grab a fist full of his long hair and pull him back into the shed. The huge man flung the small boy against the wall with a sickening thud.
Johnny’s chest exploded in pain; it felt as if all the breath was being forced out of his body all at once, and his vision began to grey and tunnel out … he gave a final agonized cry as his body slid down the wall and he fell insensate onto the floor of the woodshed.
The next thing Johnny was aware of was a blurry vision of his grandmother standing over him, nudging his legs with the toe of her shoe.
Johnny’s eyes slowly blinked open and he shifted restlessly on the cold floor of the woodshed. He whimpered piteously as a hot bolt of pain flashed through his left side and upper left chest. His head ached and he could feel the hot sour bile as it rose into the back of his throat. The colour drained out of his face and he started to gag.
In one swift move, his grandmother grabbed him by the back of the shirt and dragged him out the door and into the snow bank behind the house.
“Oh no you don’t… you won’t vomit inside my house you little brat. It’s bad enough I’m expected to feed you and let you sleep underneath my roof.” She spat out acidly.
Johnny heaved over and over as he lost the contents of his stomach into the snow. He moaned miserably as the pain in his chest caused tears to stream down his cheeks. When he had finally finished throwing up, his grandmother pulled him to his feet, causing Johnny to cry out in agony. He hunched over in pain using his arm to guard his ribs. He shivered uncontrollably while stood barefoot in the snow.
His grandmother eyed him disdainfully for several minutes before she heaved a sigh of disgust.
“As if I don’t have better things to do than haul your sorry ass into the clinic. When we get there, you’ll tell the doctor that you fell from the loft in the barn when you were getting hay for the horse this morning … if you know what’s good for you… you got that?” His grandmother warned him.
Johnny nodded silently.
“My husband rarely got drunk before your worthless father killed my daughter. And now to add insult to injury, we got saddled with raising you… Well don’t just stand there like a useless lump, get into the car,” She growled at him.
At the clinic the local doctor looked at down at the boy disinterestedly. He hated this assignment. He couldn’t wait until his internship was over and he no longer had to spend three days a week working at this godforsaken clinic. He had better things to do than patch up a bunch of drunken savages. The old woman had claimed the boy had fallen out of the loft of their barn earlier that morning. The examination and further x-rays showed that the boy had broken two ribs on his left side. But more than that, the child’s back and shoulders were covered in welts and bruises consistent with some kind of strap. The young doctor knew full well that the boy had been beaten, but he had been warned about getting himself involved with anything to do with anyone on the reservation… his job was to treat their injuries and illnesses, and that is exactly what he intended to do… nothing more, nothing less.
He glanced down at the bark haired child on the gurney before him, and despite his distaste for the people on the reservation; he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the child; so against the advice of his superior at the hospital, he decided to give the child a break. After examining the boy once more, he turned to the boy’s grandmother.
“This child has two broken ribs on the left side, as well as extensive bruising. Due to the fact that he is not breathing effectively, he is at a high risk for developing some kind of chest infection like pneumonia. Because of that, I’m afraid I will have to admit the child for at least a week… maybe longer, so we can effectively manage his pain and make sure he is breathing deeply and coughing effectively enough to clear his lungs until the worst of the pain has subsided.”
Johnny’s grandmother just nodded. Having a week’s respite from having to look at the boy that she held at least partially responsible for her daughter’s downfall suited her just fine. She nodded tersely at the young doctor and pointed to Johnny.
“Have someone phone me when he is ready to come home…I’ll be back for him then,” and without another word to either the boy or the doctor, she turned and walked out the door without so much as a backward glance.
Johnny’s ribs were wrapped and he was helped into a pair of blue stripped flannel pyjamas and put to bed. The first day or so, Johnny just lay in his bed and slept. It was the first time he had had a proper bed to sleep in since the last time he had been a patient here, and that had been after his parents had been killed. It was also the first time in months he had felt safe enough to relax enough to let himself fall into a deep sleep.
By the third day, he was feeling more rested and the pain medication was keeping him comfortable enough that he felt like sitting up to pay attention to all that was happening around him. That afternoon, he watched with interest as one of the younger nurses carted in a five foot imitation Christmas tree and began putting it up in the ward room in a corner that was considered to be the common area. That was where a small couch and a little black and white television and a small box with a few toys and books were situated. The nurse informed the doctor on duty that they were putting up the tree in an effort to cheer the place up a bit.
Unlike the older nurses, the younger one did not harbour any prejudices against the injured boy… in fact it seemed she had a soft spot for him.
By mid-afternoon the tree was festooned with several strings of garland, bright coloured lights and coloured glass balls. It was at this point that the younger nurse came into the room with a large box in her hands. The words Lionel train set were printed in large black letters across the top and there was a picture of a train engine with several cars and a red caboose on the lid.
Johnny watched with rapt attention as the nurse knelt down and set the train up around the bottom of the tree. One by one she pulled out a station house and several cars, including an engine, a coal car, a Baby Ruth box car and a bright red caboose. Johnny was delighted when she turned on the steam powered train set and its lights came on.
He heard its tinny sounding whistle blow while it made its way around the bottom of the tree. The young nurse then produced a small white tablet and inserted it into the locomotives smoke stack which produced smoke from the engine.
“I was the only girl in a house full of brother’s,” she explained to Johnny with a kindly smile. “I always wanted a train, but my parents bought me dolls instead. So now that I am older, I buy my own trains to play with… I thought this might cheer you up a bit,” she said, winking at the small boy.
Johnny couldn’t pull his eyes away from the scene, and he was extremely disappointed, when after about a half an hour, the nurse came in and switched the train off.
That night Johnny lay in his bed just thinking about the marvelous train set that wound around the bottom of the tree on the other side of the room. How he wished he had something that wonderful. He frowned as he realized that there was no way he would ever own something so grand… not now. His grandparents would never allow it. He knew they would throw away his tattered old comic book and his beloved necklace if they ever discovered their existence….luckily Johnny kept his necklace hidden safely away in a small tin box underneath a loose floorboard behind the woodpile in the shed.
It was while these thoughts were running around in his head that he suddenly had an idea… he could ask Santa for a train set!
Johnny still remembered the brand new pair of hockey skates Santa had given him last year. He heaved a sad sigh as he thought about those skates. He wondered where they were now. He knew his grandparents had gotten rid of everything he owned and loved after his parents died. He sniffed and wiped away an unbidden tear as he recalled the frosty winter nights the year before, when his father would take him out to the ranch, where the ranch hands had cleared off the pond in order to play hockey on the frozen surface. They always included Johnny in their games.
He pushed away his somber thoughts and focused on his resolve to ask Santa for one of those trains. He knew there would be no way his grandparents would let him keep a train set, but he figured that if he wrote to Santa and explained things to him, that perhaps Santa would be willing to leave his gift out in the barn for him.
His grandfather never went into up into the haymow anymore. The barn was a large barn built during the First World War. It had been made to primarily house feed for the farm animals that had lived in the stable for the original owner of the small farm. It not only held a threshing floor and two large haymows, but located in the corner of the threshing floor was a good sized granary that had been built right inside the barn next to one of the haymows. Up the side of the granary wall was a ladder that led to the granary roof, which was a large flat area of about 12 feet square. He could climb up onto the granary roof and be out of sight. It was more than large enough to hold a train, and his grandfather would never find it there. His grandfather was too old to go climbing around anymore. Johnny figured he could go up there on his free time and play with it away from the angry eyes of both his grandparents.
The next morning Johnny patiently waited for the afternoon shift to start. That was when the younger nurse came on duty. He knew better than to approach the older morning or night nurses. They were much older and didn’t seem to like him for some reason. But the younger nurse would smile and talk to him.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon when the younger nurse came by to check his temperature, listen to his breathing with the stethoscope and do his blood pressure and pulse. Johnny sat quietly while she checked him over. As soon as she stood up and put the blood pressure cuff back in her pocket she smiled down at him as she fluffed up his pillow for him.
“Well, good afternoon, Johnny. How are you feeling today?”
Johnny smiled shyly and decided it was now or never so he took in a deep breath, grimacing slightly at the pain it caused in his ribs, and made his request.
“Please, miss,” he asked. “I wanted to write a letter to Santa, but I don’t have any paper or a pen.”
The young nurse smiled and gave his head a pat.
“That’s not a problem Johnny. How about if I go get you a sheet of paper and a pen and you can write one out right now?”
Johnny smiled and nodded his head.
“Thank-you ma’am… but once I write it, I don’t know how I can get it to him. I don’t have any money for a stamp, and I don’t think I can get to a mailbox either.”
The young nurse winked at patted his leg.
“I’ll tell you what. You just write your letter and I’ll get you an envelope. Then on my way home from work, I’ll post it for you. I’m sure I can rustle up a spare stamp from somewhere.”
Johnny reached over and gave the young nurse a hug in spite of the pain it caused him.
“Thank-you so much, Miss… thank-you, thank-you, thank-you.”
The nurse stood up and gave Johnny a smile.
“My pleasure, Johnny,” she answered.
Several moments later she returned with a sheet of lined white paper and a ballpoint pen.
That night for the first time since his parents’ deaths, Johnny fell asleep with a smile on his face. He finally had something to look forward to.
In the end, the doctor decided to keep Johnny at the clinic for a full two weeks. Largely because he figured if he let him go after only one week, he would in all likelihood re-injure himself doing chores and end up with an even worse injury. So it was the twentieth of December when his grandmother was summoned to the clinic to collect Johnny.
Johnny was actually sad to leave the clinic. Even though the young nurse was the only one who actually ever talked to him, or showed him any kindness, his time in the clinic had been heaven compared to his grandparent’s home. At least here he had a soft, warm bed and three square meals a day. But the thing he was going to miss the most were the afternoons when the pretty young nurse would turn on the train and let Johnny get out of bed to go and sit beside it. She even let him drop the tablet into the engine’s smokestack in order to produce the smoke.
Back at his grandparent’s house, life got back to normal. Nothing was ever mentioned about the incident regarding his broken ribs. Johnny still moved slowly and he was careful to protect his sore ribs. But even being back at his grandparents’ home couldn’t dampen his spirits. In just four more days he would have his very own train set. Johnny was counting down the hours until Santa would arrive. He was already planning out in his head how he would arrange the layout. He could even construct some extra buildings of his own from scraps of wood he found lying around. Johnny was almost sick with anticipation… finally something good was going to come his way.
~ ~ ~
December 25th 1960
Johnny awoke Christmas morning and he could barely contain his excitement at the thought of the wonderful train set he was sure was waiting for him in the barn. He just knew Santa had read his letter, and would grant his request to leave his gift in the barn where his grandparent’s wouldn’t see it.
He quickly filled the wood box then ate down his bowl of oatmeal. He cleared the table and did the dishes in record time that morning. Since the saloon was closed for Christmas, his grandfather put on his coat and made his way over to one of his drinking buddy’s homes to enjoy his Christmas ‘spirits’ there. His grandmother made her way into the living room and switched on the TV. His grandparents did not celebrate Christmas… they did not believe in the Christian story of the infant Jesus, and had never felt compelled to honor the day.
Johnny’s father had been raised in the Baptist faith, and his mother had accepted Jesus into her life within the first year of her marriage to Roderick Gage. Consequently, Johnny had been raised in the Christian faith. There were several others on the reservation, usually amongst the younger generation, that were also Christian. There was both a Catholic church and a Protestant church located on the reservation. Johnny had attended Sunday school and the odd adult service at Christmas and Easter with his parents at the Protestant church. So Johnny had always celebrated Christmas.
He had found it hard to accept the fact that there would be no Christmas trees, or holiday music, or Christmas services in his life anymore. But at least he could still write to Santa. That had been the single lifeline Johnny had been clinging to these past few weeks, and he couldn’t wait to run out to the barn and claim his gift.
Finally the time arrived when he could slip on his coat and boots and make his way out to the barn. Johnny hurried across the barn yard and pushed open the door to the threshing floor. He glanced around in anticipation, only to be met by a cold empty space.
He glanced around in confusion before a new thought entered into his head. Perhaps Santa had left his train on the granary roof. After all Santa knew everything didn’t he?
Johnny scrambled up the ladder excitedly and pulled himself up over the top rung of the ladder. He stopped dead in his tracks when he looked around and only saw stray bits of straw and dirt on the surface of the roof.
Johnny’s eyes filled with tears as the realization set in that there was not going to be any train set for him. He sank down dejectedly onto the floor and sobbed bitterly. Just like everyone else in his life… Santa had deserted him. Johnny sat and cried for almost an hour, before he stood up and brushed off the dirt and straw from his jeans and went about feeding the animals and cleaning out the horse stall. Slowly he made his way back to the house and crawled back onto his pallet and wrapped his blanket around him.
He was so disheartened he decided he might as well just give up on ever being happy ever again. As he lay there, he replayed the last years’ Christmas in his head. He remembered the late night sleigh ride with his parents to cut down the tree. He thought about lying sprawled out before the roaring fire drinking hot chocolate and apple cider while he listened to his mother hum Christmas carols. But most of all he remember coming into the living room and seeing the brand new pair of hockey skates that Santa had left for him under the tree on Christmas morning.
As much as he tried to hold them in, fresh tears ran down Johnny’s face and he began to cry anew. He was so lost in his misery that he didn’t notice his grandmother come into the woodshed.
“What the hell are you bawling about boy?” she demanded angrily.
Johnny sat up and wiped his eyes. He was too miserable to even care about watching what he said to his grandmother anymore. He figured it was probably all his grandparents fault anyway. He had decided that Santa must be mad at them because they didn’t believe in Jesus or Christmas. He looked up angrily at his grandmother.
“Santa didn’t come last night because you and grandfather don’t believe in Christmas, and now I’ll never get my train set.” he cried bitterly.
His grandmother looked down at him and smiled evilly. It was clear she was taking great pleasure at his misery.
“Shut up you stupid boy. I cannot believe you still believe in Santa at your age. There is no such thing as Santa… Santa Claus is nothing but a fairy tale made up by white man to tell to their young children. They buy the gifts themselves and hide them until the children go to bed on Christmas Eve. Then they bring the toys out and pretend some made up story character has left them during the night. Most children have figured it out by your age. Your parents bought all those gifts for you all those years, not Santa. It’s time you grew up. Now stop all that snivelling, or I will give you something to really cry about… Besides, I need more wood for the living room fireplace, and the kitchen stove. Hurry up and bring it in.” And without another word she turned and walked back into the kitchen.
~ ~ ~
December 27th 1960.
Johnny walked along dejectedly scuffing his boots in the snow as he made his way to the general store to buy a pound of sugar, some coffee and a box of cookies for his grandmother. She had informed him that morning that her friend was coming over for an afternoon visit and she wanted to make sure she had some white sugar for the coffee and some cookies to serve to her guest. Once he returned with the items he was to make himself scarce. She did not want her friend to know that she had her daughters half breed whelp hanging around.
Johnny entered the store and handed his grandmothers shopping list along with the money to the shop keeper. He was careful to keep his eyes averted so he couldn’t see the disdainful looks the man gave him. He was a disgrace to everyone on the reservation, and he had learned long ago that it was better not to look people in the eye and to try and make himself as inconspicuous as possible at all times. That was the reason he hadn’t noticed his father’s friend, Old Bill enter into the store. He also was unaware that the man had been watching him from a distance.
As soon as his grandmother’s order was filled, Johnny collected the sack off the counter and made his way back onto the street. He had only gone a few paces when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Johnny started and glanced up fearfully to see who had grabbed him. He sighed in relief when he looked up into the kind eyes of his father’s closest friend.
“Hello, Old Bill,” Johnny greeted sadly.
“Well hey there, Johnny, long time-no see. How are things going?”
Johnny just shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground.
Old Bill frowned and patted Johnny’s head.
“I’m real sorry about your folks. I know it must be awfully hard on you… especially at this time of year.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Johnny answered quietly. “Nothing matters anymore,” he muttered as he started to walk away.
Bill quickly caught up with him and put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“What do you mean nothing matters anymore? What’s wrong?”
Johnny knew better than to tell Bill about the abuse and the treatment he suffered at the hands of his grandparents, but he couldn’t help blurting out the sad tale of his disastrous Christmas, and his grandmothers revelation about the fact that there was no Santa Claus, and that he hadn’t gotten the train set he’d set his heart on.
Bill patted his shoulder sympathetically and pulled him over to the side of his pickup truck.
“Well, that’s a hard thing to find out for any child, Johnny. But I imagine it hurt all the more in light of the fact that you just recently lost your parents. But you know son, Christmas has never really been about Santa and presents anyway, right?”
Johnny nodded. “Yes, Bill. I know it is really about Jesus’ birthday.”
“That’s right son. It really is about Jesus, and you know that Jesus loves you more than anything. In fact he was willing to die just so that your mama and poppa and even you, could go live with him in heaven.”
Johnny nodded his head, but didn’t look up.
Old Bill looked down at the child and smiled. Everyone around knew the miserable existence the boy was living now that his parents were gone. The law had given custody of the boy to his grandparents, who were both extremely cold and indifferent to the child. He could have gladly gone over to the boy’s grandparent’s home and given them a piece of his mind. But he knew in the end, that they would just make the boy suffer even more for it. However, Bill did know of one thing he could do for the boy right now. He took the boy around to the passenger side of his truck and opened the door.
“Do you remember that every Christmas I go around and deliver all the hampers of toys and food for the needy each Christmas for the Salvation Army?”
Johnny nodded his head.
“Well, this year when I got back to the ranch after delivering the packages, I noticed that one had fallen out in the bottom of the truck. I was going to turn it in next week, but it just so happens it is marked on the outside as being a gift for a boy aged 8-11. Now the way I see it, every child deserves to have something to open on Christmas morning. I realize that it’s a couple of days late, but I want you to take this here gift home and open it up. I want you to consider it a belated Christmas present from me, okay?”
Johnny was about to turn down the man’s offer. The only thing he had really wanted was the train set. But the more he looked at the gift, the more he wanted it. He had no idea what was inside it package, but whatever it was, it had to be more interesting than re-reading his comic book again. He had no other possession besides his necklace. He thought it might be nice just to have something to call his very own.
He reached out and took the brightly coloured gift from Bill and quietly thanked him. Bill reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a candy bar and handed it over to Johnny.
“Merry Christmas, Johnny,” he said.
Old Bill got back into his truck, closed the door and started the engine, while Johnny backed away from the truck. The older man wound down the window of the truck and stuck his head out and looked one final time at the boy.
“Remember what I said Johnny. No matter what, Jesus loves you more than anything.
He’s up there in heaven right now looking after your mama and poppa for you.”
Johnny nodded, “I’ll remember, Bill … and thanks again,” he said as he held up the gift.
All the way home Johnny tried to guess what it was that was in his gift. The more he tried to guess, the more excited he got about having something new that he could call his own. He couldn’t wait to escape out to the barn with his treasure to open it up.
He didn’t walk up the lane when he got to his home, but instead he walked on past the gate to the fence line up the road and slipped over the fence so he could come up behind the barn. He wanted to hide his gift in the barn before he went into the house.
He knew his grandmother would be watching for him to come up the long lane, and he knew she would spy the gift in his hands; it was too large to hide in his coat. He hid the gift in the haymow and shoved the candy bar deep into his coat pocket; then he back-tracked out to the road and up to the gate at the end of the lane. He hurried up the lane towards his grandparents’ house.
His grandmother met him and the door and quickly relieved him of the sack of groceries; then she pointed to the back door.
“Now remember what I said. I don’t want to see or hear hide nor hair of you until supper time. You got that?”
Johnny nodded his head and walked out the door. He heard the door slam behind him, but today he didn’t care. He practically ran all the way to the barn. Once inside he retrieved his package, and snagged an apple from the barrel, as he climbed up the ladder and sat on the granary roof. It was cool, but not freezing in the barn. It was a well-built structure and it was quite snug and dry inside. Thanks to the many cats that were wandering about, it was also mice and rat free.
Johnny pulled the gift onto his lap and hurriedly tore off the paper. Inside was a cardboard box that had been sealed shut with packing tape. Johnny’s fingers fumbled in excitement as he ripped the tape away and pulled the box open. His eyes grew wide with delight as he gazed down on a light blue and yellow tin container full of Lincoln logs. On the side it proclaimed to be America’s favourite toy, and that it held approximately 91 pieces. As well as the Lincoln logs there was a pair of homemade mittens and a hat knitted in a deep green colour as well as a small bag of gumdrops and a candy cane. Johnny grinned. Those mittens and hat were a Godsend. No more would he have to rely on keeping his hands buried inside his coat pockets for warmth.
Johnny was still heartbroken over the fact that he had not gotten his train set… and even worse, that he had found out that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, but at least this helped lessen the blow somewhat. He now actually owned a toy of his very own. It was also something else to do besides reading his tattered but well-loved comic book.
Johnny spent the entire afternoon, happily constructing various buildings and forts while he munched away on his treats. He ate down his candy bar and the apple he had taken from the barrel. He decided he was going to save the gumdrops and his candy cane for another time. He wanted to make them last as long as he possibly could.
Once his grandmother had gone to bed for the night, he would stash his candy inside the tin box under the floorboards where it would be safe from any stray rodents or cats.It was beginning to get dark when he heard a car door slam in the driveway. He looked out through a crack in the barn and seen his grandmother’s guest drive off. He could also see that his grandfather had arrived home from work for his supper.
Johnny quickly gathered up his logs and put them back in their tin container. He then walked over the corner of the granary roof and hid the tin underneath a tattered old feedbag. It was while he was gathering up the discarded wrapping paper that a small booklet fell from the folds of the paper and onto the floor.
Johnny stooped over and picked up booklet and opened up the front cover. It only took a second for Johnny to see that it was actually a thin story book put out by the Salvation Army. Inside was the story of the Nativity, complete with pictures. Johnny knew all about the story of Jesus’ birth, but he shoved the booklet inside his jacket anyway. He decided it might be nice to have something new to read tonight when he went to bed.
He hurriedly climbed down the ladder and made his way up to the house. He stopped off at the woodpile and gathered up enough logs for the kitchen stove and the fireplace in the living room. His grandmother barely acknowledged him as she prepared their evening meal. Once he had filled the woodstove with the logs, he slipped back into the woodshed to remove his jacket.
He slid the booklet and his bag of candy inside his pillowcase and hung his jacket on the nail on the back of the woodshed door. He quietly slipped back into the kitchen to wash his hands and set the table for supper. That night he lay on his pallet underneath his blanket thinking about the tin of Lincoln logs out in the barn. He was mentally planning what kind of building he would construct the next day.
He was careful to lie quietly, not making a sound, until he heard his grandmother shut off the television and make her way up the stairs. He knew it would still be a couple of hours before his grandfather came home. Johnny quickly went over to the loose floorboard behind the woodpile and pulled out his tin box.
He carefully removed his mother’s necklace and slid the bag of candy inside the tin. He sat and fingered the soft leather on the necklace while he looked over all the finely craved figures on the bone pendant. Johnny could almost hear his mother’s voice inside his head as she told the story of the necklace’s origins. He lovingly ran his fingers over the necklace one more time, stopping when he came to the small lump that contained the engagement ring his father had purchased for his mother so many years earlier.
Johnny held it in his hands for several more minutes before he gathered it up and placed it back inside the can where it would be safe. He then wrapped his blanket around himself and settled down to wait for his grandfather’s return in case he needed to hide again.
While he waited, he pulled out the booklet that had fallen out of his present. He opened it up and carefully read the story of the Christ child’s birth, starting from Elizabeth and Zachariah, until the flight into Egypt. As he read, Johnny thought once more about what Old Bill had told him, about Christmas really being about the infant Jesus … and how Jesus was the real Christmas present.
He suddenly found it comforting to know that Jesus loved him, and that even now he was looking after his mama and father up in heaven.Johnny just wished that Jesus would come down now and help him. He didn’t know how he was going to survive until he was old enough to leave this place and strike out on his own. He was determined to do as his mother asked. He was resolved to grow up and be a good man, even though he had no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up. He only knew he wanted to go far, far away from here.
But as for a career… well unfortunately Johnny had given up hoping and dreaming about anything in the future. Just keeping out of harm’s way was occupying his full attention 24-7 right now. He thought it would be so much easier if only Jesus would come down and save him from his grandparents… or even take him up to be with his parents.Johnny was just finishing up the booklet for the second time, when he heard his grandfather stumble up the front porch steps and open the front door.
After a minute or so had passed, he heard him stagger up the stairs to bed. Johnny heaved a sigh of relief and closed the booklet, so he could turn out his light and go to sleep. “Boy, Jesus. I sure wish you were here right now… I could sure use your help. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up,” he quietly prayed.It was as he shut the booklet that he noticed more writing on the back cover.
Johnny held the booklet under the dim light as he read the words that were written there.….The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek. He hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all those that mourn…. Isaiah 61: 1-2.
Johnny sat and starred down at the picture of the Holy Infant as he pondered the words he had just read. Suddenly as he lay there the words from his old Sunday school teacher went through his head… words he hadn’t thought of until this very moment.“I will never leave you, or forsake you…”
That was what God had promised.Johnny slid the booklet under his pallet with his comic book, and he switched off the light. As he lay there in the dark he let the words he had just read run through his mind several times. Suddenly he knew that somehow he was going to make it. He knew it might not be easy, and that there would be more pain and sorrow, but he knew he was going to survive… he was going to grow up to be the man he promised his mother he would become.
“I will never leave you, or forsake you.” He settled back into his pillow and closed his eyes. He whispered those words to himself one more time, before he finally fell asleep. They were comforting words to fall asleep with. And for the first time in a long time, Johnny slept in heavenly peace, knowing that Jesus truly loved him and that his mama and father were safe in his arms.
Posted to Site 12/01/2014
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