The snow had come suddenly last night. I couldn’t help but think of the guys at school. They’ll be happy. All they had talked about the whole Christmas vacation was whether it was going to snow or not. Mother said she reckoned it was about five inches. Well, to be honest, the snow wasn’t all they talked about. The Hinson brothers were bragging about the new bikes they were going to get. Dennis was eyeing that B-B gun Mr. O’Connell had in his store-front window. Karl wanted a Swiss Army Knife. And Alan Hinshaw laid it on thick about something called an erector set. I didn’t even know what that was…..didn’t care! It sounded expensive, but shucks, his dad owns the sawmill; he can get anything he wants!
I wish I’d a’brought my cap, it’s colder up on this mountain than I thought it’d be. I just left in too big of a hurry. This is where I come to think. And I’ve got a heap of thinking to do what with Christmas Day being tomorrow and all. We’re getting nothing again this year. Mother said, “Ryne, I’m sorry, it’s 1934, there’s a depression. Someday you’ll understand. If your dad hadn’t a—”
That’s when I got out’a there! That’s the same thing she said last year. Is this depression going to last forever? And the Lord knows it’s not Mom’s fault. She’s doing all she can do. There just ain’t no work. And I don’t care about the presents. I don’t want nothing. But Billy has talked about a toy train and I’d give my right arm if I could get Coleen that Raggedy Ann doll she keeps a’studying on in that picture book. I ain’t being completely honest. I’d love to have a new bike. A shiny red Western Flyer. I’d wheel into school and park right between Jeff and Chuck. Wouldn’t that be grand!
Shoot a mile, who am I trying to fool carrying on like that. I ain’t got a chance. Why do guys like Alan Hinshaw get all the luck? Nobody cares about us. Why, I’d leave in a minute if—
I near ’bout jumped out of my skin. I didn’t hear nobody coming up.
“What’s your name?”
“Ryne, sir. Ryne Bernier.” How did he get up here without me hearing him? How did he know about my secret place?
“How old are you, son?”
Well, I don’t make a habit out of talking to just anybody. But this guy looked O.K. He was dressed in overalls and looked as common as me. And he wasn’t a real old man, looked kinda young – in an old sorta way. Timeless. You know what I mean? His eyes were gentle and friendly, and he liked me – kids can tell about things like that.
“Are you sure about that, Ryne?”
“Well, I’m eleven, but my birthday is just next month.” He smiled like he knew I got it right.
“What are you doing up here?”
Before I knew it I was spilling my guts to a perfect stranger; told him everything – except the part about me wanting a bicycle. I figured he might think I was selfish. He never said a word except for when I was telling him how I wished I could carve out a wooden train for Billy. He said I could do it – it would just take a little practice – that he used to be a carpenter himself; he kinda’ smiled and said he’d never carved out a train though.
I also upset him a little when I got down to the part about nobody caring a whit for a nothing boy like me. He looked me right in the eyes, didn’t scare me mind you, but it sure got my attention. “Don’t say that, Ryne. And don’t you ever believe it for a minute. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We didn’t talk much longer – he stood up and placed his hand on my head – guess he was wondering why I was out here bareheaded. He didn’t say nothing about my missing hat and I played like I didn’t notice those awful scars on his hands. He said he had to go and that I’d better hurry home – a storm was coming. Ha, I had him there! Listen, I’d lived in these hills all my life. Too clear and crisp; the storm had done passed through. He didn’t know as much as I thought he did, “Hey, Mister, you’re plum wrong about—”
He was gone. I looked all around. I couldn’t even find his tracks.
It started snowing before I got to Calumet Creek. And I got a little turned around where the trail forks behind the old Sutton place. Dark was setting in. And I wasn’t exactly sure where I was. I stumbled around looking for a tree or a rock that I could recognize – I couldn’t be lost – the house has got to be close by! I climbed up on a ledge and there was the light from the barn. Thank goodness! I was home in ten minutes.
Mother was all over me. “Son, come look, you won’t believe it!”
You could have knocked me over with a feather! Billy was on the floor, pulling the finest wooden train I ever saw between the legs of that old cane bottom chair Uncle Wyatt let us have. Seven cars with a Red Caboose! Perfect. And Coleen was a’hugging a Raggedy Ann so hard I don’t think either one of them could breathe.
“Son, he just stopped by, appeared out of nowhere; said he’d picked these things up a while back and wondered if we’d have any use for them. He said you were all right and that you’d be home soon. Land sakes, he was gone before I could even thank him proper. Ryne, do you know—”
“Mother, how long has the barn light been out?”
“Son, that light hadn’t worked in over a year.”
I made a dash for the back door. I had to see for myself. It was so dark out there I fell over the bicycle parked right slap dab in the middle of our back porch. The brand new bicycle. Western Flyer. Red!
Ryne and His Friend