- At The Barn House -
Morris' big, round eyes were full of apprehension. He was sure he had heard the faint sound of Santa's tinkling bells.
"I'm going to buy these bells," James had laughed when he told Ellen of his plan to fool their kids into thinking Santa was coming, "and when I jingle them, the kids will think it's Santa. Then I bet they'll lay still and go to sleep real quick."
Once more, James gently shook the tiny sleigh bells he had purchased earlier.
"Mother! Santa's coming!" Morris sat up in the pallet-bed he was sharing with his two brothers. "I hear his sleigh bells!"
"You kids had better get to sleep," James' voice boomed out from his and Ellen's partitioned off bedroom. "Or, Santa may not stop!"
"Mother!" Dorothy called out from the girls pallet-be. "Hurry! Get the dishes done and the lights out. We want Santa to think we're asleep!" Ellen laughed and said she would hurry.
"This is the best time of the year," Ellen thought as she turned out the lights. James and Ellen had bought their children one Christmas gift each, and made plans to get up in the wee hours of morning to sneak their special presents into the house.
Earlier that year, when James had found a job close to Nora and Henryís, they had converted one of Henryís barns into a house and moved in. The barn was only about a mile from Nora and Henry's farm. On the backside of the barn-house was a sliding door, large enough for an elephant to walk through. During the summer, Ellen often left the door open to let cool breezes in. Now, as she walked passed it in the dark, she felt the frigid, winter air oozing through. What had been a sweet pleasure in summer had become a source of trouble during winter. James had tried to winter-proof the door, but when the wind was blowing as it was tonight, freezing air easily seeped through.
"Do you have the alarm set?" James whispered, as Ellen pulled the covers back and slipped into bed.
"Yes, and I put a towel over it to muffle the sound," she answered as she snuggled down into the warm bed. Their bedroom stayed chilly throughout the winter months. It was partitioned off from their only source of heat; an old, regal-looking, pot-bellied, wood-burning stove that held sovereign attention in the winter.
"It sure is snowing hard," Ellen mumbled as sleep gently clothed her mind.
"Probably a blizzard," She barely heard James' answer.
Then the clock's deadened, insistent clanging broke into Ellen's slumber. She was enticingly warm and hated to wake up. But, when she remembered the Christmas presents, she quickly sat up.
"James, let's get the toys out," she whispered as she nudged him awake.
"Oh, hum," he stretched and yawned. "Boy, was I sleeping good."
"Yeah, me too," Ellen answered softly as she crawled out of bed and walked to the window. She forgot about trying to be quiet as she looked outside at all the whiteness. "Good heavens! James! Come here and look out this window!"
"Sh-h-h!" James hushed her. "Youíre going to wake up the kids."
"itís pretty deep snow," James whispered in her ear as they stood looking out the window.
"Iíll say," Ellen lowered her voice. "Well, letís get the gifts out."
"What do you mean, letís?" He quietly joked with her. "Youíre not the one who has to tromp outside to the car."
"Well, thatís what you get for being Santa," Ellen muffled her laugh. James tiptoed to the front door and tried to open it without making a noise. Ellen crept between the pallet beds to check the fire in the old stove. James had banked it with wood just before going to bed. As Ellen lifted the stove lid, the grating noise disturbed Ronald Lee. He stirred a moment, as if to awaken, then settled back down into sleep.
"Ellen, come here," James called in such a low voice Ellen barely heard him. Satisfied the stove didn't need more wood, she slid the lid back onto it and tiptoed to James.
"What is it?" She asked.
"I just wanted you to see how much snow is piled up against the door before I knock it away," he answered as he opened the door even wider.
"My word! I've never seen anything like it. Not in this part of the country anyway," Ellen exclaimed in open-mouth wonder.
"Sh-h-h," James grinned at her. He kicked the snow away from the door and trudged out into a pure white stillness. Ellen stood in the doorway and looked out. The beauty of the night took her breath away. Earlier that afternoon a winter storm had brought freezing rain, but by nightfall it had turned to snow. When the storm was over it had left behind a snow capped, crystal world. The trees were solidly iced, with great clusters of icicles hanging off their branches. The sky was sparkling clear, with a bright, silver moon casting a soft glow over the glimmering, snow-clad earth. Heavenly lights were twinkling so brightly, it seemed as if they were laughing in silent glee at the exquisite beauty they were gazing upon.
"Something like this sure makes you wonder if there is a God," Ellen thought as she drew her robe tighter and closed the door upon the splendor of the iced marvel. "Sometimes I want to believe in God so much it hurts. I guess everyone needs a crutch to dispel the ugliness of such a cruel world," she silently reasoned. Ellen began thinking about how James had settled down and was thankful that, lately, there hadn't been a lot of fussing. James had stopped gambling, and peace, it seemed, had descended upon their world. How long peace would last Ellen wasn't sure, but she was grateful for the lull.
"Here you are," James whispered as he opened the door and handed her part of the packages he was carrying.
"I never knew the sound of paper rustling could be so loud," she giggled in the sweet joy of being secretive. Ever so gently, Ellen laid each doll beside its owner. Patsy, unaware of the treasure she reached for, hugged her doll. The boy's presents were laid at the foot of their pallet bed without a stir from them.
"There, now, let's get back to bed before one of them wakes up," James whispered.
"First, you need to eat those cookies and drink the milk put out for Santa," Ellen reminded him. She smiled at the memory of Patsy and Dorothy preparing Santa's treat.
"Mother, Santa's going to be proud of us, huh?" Dorothy had asked with a cookie filled mouth.
"Yeth, he is," Patsy had spoke up while filling her mouth with cookie dough, "Cauth he gonna be hungry. He gonna like our cookeeth, huh? Mudder."
"Yes, he'll be proud of you and he will love your cookies," Ellen had reassured them.
James picked up a cookie and handed it to Ellen; bringing her out of her reflections. "I'll tell you what, you eat one and I'll eat one," he grinned at her. "But, you're going to have to drink the milk yourself."
"Okay," she agreed as she turned up the milk and drank it down.
"Let's hit the hay," James suggested in a low voice. They were still trying to silently move about.
"Boy, this bed sure feels good," Ellen stated, as once again she snuggled down into the deep softness of covers. She smiled, thinking of the pleasures of Christmas morning, as she allowed sleep to overtake her mind.
"Look! Look! Santa's been here! Santa's been here!" The joyful cries, that only a happy Christmas morning could bring, broke into Ellen's deep slumber.
"Daddy, Look!" Squealing with delight, Dorothy ran into Ellen and James' small sleeping area. "Mother! Look! See my new doll that Santa brought."
"Well, well, would you look at that," James exclaimed and winked at Ellen.
"I'll get coffee, if you'll put wood in the stove," Ellen bargained with James as they bestirred themselves amid cries of joy and pattering of little feet.
"Sounds like a good deal to me," James agreed. "Later on, if youíll fix ice cream, the kids and I will fill our old wash tub with snow."
"You're on," Ellen agreed as she fixed coffee. She knew she had to scrub the galvanized tub, before anyone put snow in it, because it served as the Saturday night bathtub. She was stirring pancake mix when Morris interrupted her thoughts.
"Mother? Itís cold outside and I need to go potty."
"Well, youíre a big boy. You can bundle up and go to the out-house," Ellen encouraged him and wondered how long it would be before James and Henry added an inside bathroom.
"But, itís cold outside. Canít I just use the potty bucket you have under your bed?"
"Morris, that pots for old women and little babies," James admonished him. "Now, which one are you?"
"Who cares if I get pneumonia and die?" Morris mumbled under his breath as he put on his coat. He closed the door with a bang. James and Ellen laughed, but when it came Ellen's time to go she began to wish James had added mothers to his list of who could use the chamber pot.
In spite of some drawbacks, everyone enjoyed the barn now called home. There was plenty of yard-room for the children to play in. But a certain patch of woods, at the edge of their land, held an unmistakable fascination for them. Grapevines grew profusely, up and over several trees, and the children climbed on them just as little monkeys would.
Dorothy's first and second year of school was spent while living in what everyone nicknamed the Old Barn House. The two years they lived there were some of Ellenís fondest memories. Sonny and Monroe often visited, even staying a weekend or longer.
Monroe was famous for telling ghost stories and the children looked forward to hearing them. One evening, after Monroe had told several stories, he suggested everyone play hide-and-seek. Ronald Lee was voted "It" and everyone ran to hide as he counted. While the others were finding a hiding place, Monroe slipped into the house and asked Ellen for a white bed sheet.
"Here you are." Ellen handed him the sheet. "What are you going to do with it?"
"I'm going to scare the day-lights out of a bunch of kids," Monroe answered as he sneaked out the back door.
Ellen heard Ronald Lee holler, "ready or not, here I come!"
"James, put down your paper and come over here. I have a feeling this is going to be funny," Ellen summoned him.
"What's going on?" James inquired. "Monroe just borrowed a sheet and he's hiding in the smoke house. Heís going to try to scare the kids," she told him. They peeked out a window, where each had a good view of the smokehouse, and waited to see what was going to happen.
"Free!" Patsy shrieked as she ran to base without being seen.
"One-two...," Ronald Lee started counting.
"Free!" Dorothy yelled on Ronald Leeís count of three.
"ÖThree! On Dorothy! I beat you," Ronald lee shouted at her.
"No, you didnít. I said, free, before you called my name," Dorothy argued lustily.
"No, you didnít!" Ronald Lee roared. "I got you fair and square!"
"Didnít I make it home free, Patsy?" Dorothy bellowed out her question.
"Yes!" Patsy took up the hue-and-cry. "Dorothy made it home free!"
"All right!" Ronald Lee thundered. "If you want to be a cheater, just go ahead. But, I know I got you."
"Liar, liar, pants on fire!" Dorothy put her hands on her hips and screamed, "Iím not a cheater!"
"Hey! Are you kids going to stand around all night and fuss. Or, are you going to try to find me." Monroeís muffled voice sounded stifled and distant.
"Free!" Peggyís voice rang out loud and clear.
"Hey! I bet none of you can find me!" This time Monroeís muffled voice rang out above the others.
"One-two-three, on Junior. There, behind the truck." Ronald Lee called out.
"Letís go find Monroe!" Morris yelled. "Weíll find you," a chorus of voices could be heard taking up the challenge. It wasn't long before everyone decided Monroe must have been hiding in the smokehouse. The other children crowded around as Ronald opened the door of the smokehouse. Monroe waited child was trying to look in before throwing down the
"Ye-e-e-o-w! A-a-h! Ii-i-e-e-e!" Came the frightening cries from Monroe as the sheet settled to the floor.
"I-i-e-e-e! Help! Help! Run for your lives!" came more cries from the smokehouse. Children scattered in every direction. Peggy and Junior ran for the house. Ronald Lee and Morris dashed for the truck. To get out of the darkness, Dorothy and Patsy scampered toward the back porch light. James and Ellen watched as Monroe slipped out of the smokehouse and around his car to an old army cot near the front door. The children finally gathered around him and accused him of scaring them.
"Why, I've been right here all the time," he sounded bored. "I gave up on you finding me, so I just laid down." Trying to look convincing, Monroe stretched and yawned real big.
The children were sure it was Monroe who scared them, but there was enough doubt to keep the smokehouse off limits when playing hide-and-seek. James and Ellen had a good laugh, and years later the children still talked about that night.
During his visit, when it became dark outside, Monroe often lined the children up and dared them to walk alone to the chicken house. It was about three hundred feet from the house, and on a dark night the walk could be quite scary for a child. Peggy and Junior usually backed out, because Monroe would foretell dire predictions about what could happen to them. The children often schemed together to get even with Monroe, but he usually outsmarted them.
"All right, everybody, letís see whoís the biggest coward. Line up, line up," Monroe called out one evening as he tried to get the children to participate in another round of scare tactics.
"Ronald Lee," Monroe opened the door and looked out, then glanced sideways at Ronald Lee. I just noticed thereís not much of a moon tonight."
"So what?" Ronald Lee spoke with one eyebrow raised in defiance.
"Well, do you think you can walk out to the chicken house and back without running? It's awful dark out there." Ronald Lee shrugged his shoulders in reply.
"Ellen?" Monroe glanced at her with a slight grin, "Did they ever catch that escaped mountain lion?"
Ellen didn't answer him, but he hadn't expected her to. "What about it, Ronald Lee?" Monroe asked again.
"Sure, I can," Ronald Lee answered proud and eager.
"How about you, Morris?" Monroe inquired with raised eyebrows.
"Yes, I can do it." Morris threw back his shoulders and held his head high.
"Dorothy!" Monroe turned to her.
"Sure, I can do it." She answered just as determined.
"Patsy?" Monroe gave her a questioning look.
"Why, sure, me too." Patsy sounded certain and ready.
"Peggy?" Monroe turned to her with a big grin. "What about you?"
Peggy thought about it before answering. Monroe gave Ellen and James a knowing grin. Ellen smiled back, knowing Peggy wouldnít want to go. "I donít want to, but I can." Peggy finally answered timidly.
"Aw-w-h, now, come on. Are you sure you can walk all the way out to the chicken house and back without running?" Monroe probed.
"Well-l-l, I bet I can go part of the way."
"Oh, no, that wonít count. You have to walk all the way out there and back. Do you want to do it? OrÖ" Monroe paused and raised his eyebrows at her. "ÖAre you the biggest coward?"
"Iíll try," Peggy responded softly.
"No, no," Monroe rejoined with a laugh. "Youíve got to do it, not just try. Are you ready?"
"Yeah," Peggy agreed.
"What about you, Junior?" Monroeís eyes were twinkling in amusement. Junior stretched himself as tall as a four-year-old could and looked Monroe straight in the eye.
"Me not a toward! Me tan do it."
"Now, thatís the way to talk," Monroe assured him.
"Are you all ready?" Monroe yelled out like a Marine drill sergeant.
"Yes!" Came the hue and cry in unison.
"Ronald Lee, you go first. And, donít forget, you have to walk all the way out there and back. No running," Monroe instructed as he opened the door to let Ronald Lee out.
Without hesitating, Ronald Lee stepped into the darkness. The quarter moon gave only a hint of light, and that made the going and coming back a bit more disheartening. Everyone anxiously awaited Ronald Lee's return. Junior kept looking at Ellen to judge her reaction to Ronald Leeís journey. Ellen had an amused look on her face, so Junior began to think it wasnít such a scary thing. Peggyís eyes, on the other hand, betrayed her brave front. She was becoming more and more frightened as time passed.
"He's been gone an awfully long time," Monroe gravely stated just before Ronald Lee banged on the door to be let in. "Here he is," Monroe opened the door for him. "Boy, I was beginning to think the boogey man had you."
"Nah, there ainít no such thing as a boogey man," said Ronald Lee, sounding self-assured.
"I donít know about that," Monroe answered as he turned to Morris. "Are you ready, Morris?"
Morris, Dorothy, then Patsy, lined up and took their turn. The moment each one stepped outside, Monroe began making fearful predictions about some terrible encounter with wild animals or boogey men. In spite of the dire warnings, each one walked to the chicken house and back without flinching. But by the time Patsy came in, Peggy had decided not to go.
"Go ahead," she challenged with her chin stuck out. "Call me a coward. I donít care. I'm not gonna to do it." She walked away in a huff.
"Well, I donít blame you, Peggy. I was sure I heard something behind Patsy as she came in." Monroe looked sideways at Junior. "What about it, Junior? Are you brave enough to try it?"
"Yeth, me is," Junior had a determined set to his chin as he stretched himself tall and stuck out his chest.
"Well, now, you donít have to go if you donít want to." Monroe began to soften.
"You tha toward, not me. Bet you wouldn't dough when youse little like me." Junior had a fierce look in his eyes.
"Why, Son, I've never been afraid of anything in my life," Monroe answered as he opened the door for Junior. Junior didn't hesitate, but walked straight through the open door without a backward glance.
"Why, that little wartís going to do it." Monroe laughed as he slipped outside to follow Junior. Soon, everyone heard a commotion and a yell, and Junior ran into the house calling for Ellen. Just behind Junior came Monroe holding his head. When Monroe had slipped up on him, Junior had picked up a stick and banged Monroe over the head with it. Everyone had a good laugh because Junior had lavished revenge upon Monroe without planning it.
It was while living at the barn house that James started reading the Bible. While searching for a certain radio program, he overheard a preacher talking about getting to know God through reading the Bible.
"Listen to this, Ellen," James called her away from washing dishes. Ellen put the dishcloth down and listened to the radio. She was startled to hear a preacher thundering out ambiguous threats.
"What's he saying?" she quizzed James.
"He said we're all going to hell if we don't get into God's Word and start living just like God demands us to live."
"Boy, he sounds angry," Ellen commented.
"Yeah, but, he's just warning people about the destruction to come if we don't obey God."
"Hummm," Ellen responded with a lifted eyebrow of doubt. "Heís not talking about any god Iíd want to get to know."
"Ellen!" James scolded her. "You shouldnít talk like that about God."
"Well," Ellen murmured, "I donít care. I canít stand to hear some preacher yelling about what sinners we are, and how weíre going to hell. How does he know? Is he God?"
James waved her away with a frown and turned back to the radio. Ellen went back to the kitchen area and finished cleaning up. When she took notice of James again, he was sitting outside in a chair looking at the sky.
"What's wrong, James?" she inquired. "Did that preacher get to you?"
"Maybe so," he answered. "But, we need to buy a Bible. I do want to start reading it."
Ellen shook her head and went back inside to get the children ready for bed. James didn't mention buying a Bible again. Soon after, Ellen asked her mother if she had an old bible they could borrow.
"Only Bible I have is that big, old, family Bible Jimmy bought for me. Itís packed away somewhere, but I guess we can get it out."
"No, Mother," Ellen smiled. "I wouldnít want to take a chance on something happening to it. I know how much it means to you."
"Well," Nora offered, "old lady Black was telling me that a man was at her house last week selling Bibles. Do you want me to ask her about it?"
"Nah, its no big deal. James wanted to have one. Thatís all."
"Iíll ask her, then," Nora stated. A few days later, a man selling Bibles came by Noraís home and she directed him to James and Ellenís.
"Ellen," James stood in the sliding door and summoned Ellen out of the garden.
"What is it?" she asked as she entered the house.
"This guy is selling family Bibles and we can make payments on one," James bid her to sit down and pick one out.
"What a coincidence," Ellen ventured. "Just a few days ago we were talking about buying a Bible. Now, here you are selling them."
"There are no coincidences with God," the salesman offered.
"What do you mean?" James questioned him.
"Well, obviously God intended you to have a Bible or I wouldn't be here just after you talked about buying one."
"I believe you're right," James stated. "It's an omen."
Ellen picked out one of several cumbersome, but grand looking, Bibles the salesman had in the back of his car. James gave him a down payment and the man left.
"I'm going to read this from front to back," James declared and he sat down to begin.
"Good luck," Ellen smiled at his obvious determination. Every evening James would pick up the bulky volume of knowledge and try to understand it. He memorized many verses and often quoted them to Ellen. The Old Testament laws that were given in order for man to understand how much he needed a savior became a stumbling block to James and Ellen.
"An eye for an eye," James quoted when he believed justice was needed. "God says a woman who commits adultery should be stoned to death," he would often quip.
James never completely read through the Bible. He never understood about Jesus, or the mercy of God. And, Ellen soon began to hate his stern, religious outlook. She remembered Jimmy reading the Bible to her mother, but he hadnít made it sound so foreboding. The large Bible was so awkward to handle that James soon tired of trying to read it, and Ellen breathed a sigh of relief. She put away what she considered a whirlpool of alarming admonitions, and made sure it was never opened again.
While they were living in the barn-house, Sunny and Monroe joined the Navy. Soon after joining the Navy, Sunny came home on leave with a wife. Ellen thought Sunny's wife, Gracie, was beautiful with her long, dark hair and twinkling, brown eyes. Sunny and Gracie made their home in California. They raised three children, Dennis, Kenneth, and Susan Marie. After twenty years in the Navy, Sunny retired. That was when everyone started calling him Mel.
Monroe put in his four years in the Navy also, then went home to his grandmother. Tony Bitsche, the only grandfather he had ever known had died. And Monroe, believing his grandmother needed him, went home to live with her. He worked hard to support her and sometimes he even sent support to James and Ellen for their family. In his late twenties, he met and married a red-haired beauty named Kathy. They took care of Jamesí Mother until her death. Monroe and Kathy raised three children of their own, Tammy, Tonya, and Tony.
James and Ellen moved from that barn-house, taking their memories with them. They would be migrating as gypsies for the rest of their lives. It seemed as if James saw a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. Ellen, craving a stable home, often became weary of it all. But James always talked her out of her wistful longing for a place to call her own. And, before she knew it, she would be looking forward to another place, ...and another adventure