THE JEWELLER was a sourpuss. As he wrapped up the bracelet that Chris had bought, the jeweller said:
“I hear that Gus Ericson is stepping out with the widow Larson.”
He said it with the malicious pleasure a sourpuss gets when he knows he is hurting somebody. Because, of course, he suspected that Chris planned to give the bracelet to Mrs. Larson at Christmas. There was no one else that Chris Lindstrom would be buying jewellery for.
“My horses won't stand in the cold,” was all Chris said. Then he took the parcel from the jeweller and hurried out to his sleigh.
Ragna Larson was waiting for him when Chris pulled up his horses in front of the grocery store. She was talking to Gus Ericson.
“Howdy, Chris,” called Gus, while Mrs. Larson handed up her parcels to Chris.
“Howdy,” growled Chris.
He did not like Gus Ericson. Mostly it was Gus’ slyly confident way with a woman that he disliked, particularly if the woman happened to be Ragna Larson. Gus’ sly manner seemed to say, “Boy! What I know about handling women! And this woman is like all other women.”
But to Chris Ragna Larson was not like other women.
She climbed into Chris Lindstrom’s big grain tank; a difficult feat for a woman in skirts to achieve with dignity, the way Ragna could do it.
But Gus Ericson tittered.
“Never seen prettier laigs on a thoroughbred mare,” he jibed.
Chris Lindstrom’s face flushed, angrily. But Mrs. Larson’s blue eyes sparkled. She made a pass at Ericson’s head with her weekly newspaper and Ericson ducked, laughing.
Then the horses, restive in the biting wind, lurched forward.
“I'll be seein’ you tomorrow night, Mrs. Larson,” Gus called after them.
Chris had fixed a nest of blankets for Ragna in the bottom of the grain tank but for half a mile she stood up beside him—to get the wind in her face, she said. To get Ericson out of her nostrils, Chris hoped. But it was a forlorn hope.
Ragna stood shoulder-high to Chris Lindstrom’s six-feet-one, her shapely person snugly wrapped in a coat of soft muskrat fur. Pale-gold hair lay flat on her temples beneath a little black hat. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were kissed rosy by the wind and when she looked up at Chris, from under frost-rimmed lashes, her eyes were deeply, mysteriously blue.
She was 32 and in the third year of her widowhood. But in all his 40 years Chris Lindstrom had never seen girl or woman so beautiful.
“The wheat graded Number One,” he told her, soberly, still thinking of Gus Ericson and his way with women; the sly look of him that was unclean, like an evil tongue.
“Number One!” cried Ragna. “That’s splendid!”
She said it with pride because it was her wheat that Chris had hauled to the elevator. Ever since her husband died Chris Lindstrom had worked Ragna’s farm on shares. Chris had been Ole Larson’s closest friend. And Chris had loved Ragna since the day she came as a bride to Ole Larson’s house.
The afterglow still burned in the western sky but purple shadows were piling up in the east and spreading slowly over all the snowy prairie. The wind blew clean and free. It blew the thought of Gus Ericson away so that Chris began to enjoy the greatest happiness he knew—riding with Ragna, they two alone, in a clean, white world.
Whenever the heavy sleigh lurched she put a gloved hand on Chris Lindstrom’s arm to steady herself and, even through the insulation of her glove and his own coonskin coat, he tingled at her touch. Sometimes Ragna referred to herself humorously as “a poor, weak widow woman.” But so far as Chris was concerned she did not know her own strength.
After a time Ragna sat down in the bottom of the sleigh box and Chris tucked the blankets about her. She smiled up at him and her face was like a flower. Ho frail, hothouse bud but a lovely prairie flower in its full blooming.
“One pound of coffee was all I could get,” she called. “And one pound for you, Chris. We can’t get any more until January.”
“Golly! That’s goin’ to be tough,” Chris said.
“I suppose we shouldn’t complain,” Ragna went on. “But I’ll miss the coffee worse than anything.”
“Me, too,” he said gloomily.
“When we had plenty of everything we didn’t appreciate it.”
Chris nodded. He felt that way about Ragna herself. He had never realized how much she meant to him until it seemed that he might lose her.
He wondered how she would act if he said to her, “I love you, Ragna”—supposing he was able to say the words. He could imagine her looking up at him in surprise—surprise, and then compassion. For Ragna was warm and tender-hearted. She would be sorry about having to hurt him.
So he guessed he never would be able to tell her. Gus Ericson, now, would think nothing of saying such a thing. He would do it glibly, and perhaps add something with a smutty angle to it. Gus had a smutty mind. But he was the wealthiest farmer in the district and that made a difference with a lot of people.
“What are you frowning about, Chris?” Ragna asked.
“I was just thinking about the coffee,” he lied. “I sure hate to do without coffee.”
HE LEFT her at her door and drove on to his own house, a half mile down the road. His half section adjoined the Larson land. Sometimes Chris had the fantastic dream that he and Ragna would get married and join their two farms into one fine section. It was a fantastic dream because he was eight years her senior and Ragna thought of him as an old man.
“You’ve got old-fashioned ideas, Chris,” she had told him once. “You’re pre-war. And I mean the other war.”
While he was getting supper he put the bracelet on the table where he could admire it and think how pretty it would look on Ragna’s arm. It had cost him more than he could really afford. But a present for Ragna had to be good.
“Golly!” he grumbled as his eye fell on the bag of coffee beans. “One pound of coffee for a whole month!”
Chris liked his coffee. He drank coffee at every meal. He had a cupful the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. If he chanced to come to the house between meals he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that was always on the stove.
Ragna Larson was as crazy about coffee as Chris was.
“Golly!” he said again. “A pound of coffee would be a Christmas present that Ragna would like better than anything. That’s something money can’t buy for her—until January, anyway.”
So he put the bag of coffee away, unopened. He was glad he had thought of saving the coffee for Ragna. The bracelet now seemed quite trivial and cheap. For it had merely cost money. And the coffee would cost him more than money—a lot more.
His face sobered when he looked in the coffee mill and found that there was only a handful of coffee beans in it.
This is goin’ to be tough,” he told himself.
The habit of a lifetime is not easy to break. And even though he kept reminding himself that he was saving his coffee for Ragna, Chris was not cheerful the next morning as he rode to town on a load of wheat. Doing without coffee made him irritable. Perhaps if he had had his usual morning coffee he would not have picked a fight with Gus Ericson.
Chris usually sang when he was on the road alone But that morning, and for days afterward, he did not sing at all. He kept crowding his horses, unthinkingly, until they began to lather Ruefully, then, he stopped on the road to rest them careful about his horses. He was, ordinarily careful about his horses.
While he waited on the road, a mile out of town, Gus Ericson came up. Gus was also hauling wheat. He pulled up behind Chris Lindstrom’s sleigh.
“Some more of the pretty widow’s mite?” asked Ericson, nodding at the wheat in Chris’ big grain tank.
For a moment Chris did not get the Biblical reference. “Widow’s mite?” he echoed, puzzled and not at all cordial. He seemed to dislike Ericson more this morning than ever before.
“Sure, widows might—said Gus, chuckling at his wisecrack.
Often it was not so much the thing Ericson said as his double-meaning look when he said it. He was still cackling at what he thought was a clever pun when Chris climbed down off the load. Chris pulled off his mitts and his coonskin coat.
“Get down,” he said to Ericson.
“Says which?” asked Gus in surprise.
“Get down off that load.”
“That fur coat of yours,” said Chris, marvelling that even in his anger he could still make a pun of his own. “I don’t like that fur.”
“What’s eatin’ ya, Chris? Are you crazy?”
“Just sore. I get sore lookin’ at that fur coat of yours. Take it off.”
“O-oh! I get it,” sneered Ericson. “You don’t like what I said about Mrs. ...”
Chris seized him by his feet, which dangled over the edge of the grain Lank, and jerked him off the load. “I said I don’t like that coat. Take it off,” he repeated.
“Okay—if that’s the way you want it,” Ericson snarled.
He had long nourished a secret jealousy of Chris Lindstrom and now it flared savagely. Almost with one motion he shed his fur coat, his mitts and his heavy cap. He leaped in so suddenly that his fist caught Chris in the eye and staggered him, knocking his cap off.
“You’re crazy,” Ericson cried. “But it suits me all right. I'm goin’ to knock the daylights outta you—and I’m goin’ to like it.”
THERE in the snow they fought it out. Occasionally one of the tired horses would turn its head to watch them, languidly, but there were no other witnesses.
Both Chris and Gus were big men. They looked still bigger in their bulky, blue-denim clothes and clumsy felt, overshoes. Chris was more heavy set but Ericson was hard as nails, and quick on his feet as a cat. Chris was Viking-fair, his hair blond and thick as a boy’s. Ericson’s hair was black. His eyes were black and his scowling face Indian-dark. He leaped in and hit and leaped away again, cursing.
Chris gave no thought to blocking his opponent’s blows. He had only one purpose and that was to hurt Ericson. Any punishment he himself absorbed in the process was unimportant. He took blow alter blow before he landed himself, but that one thudded solidly on Ericson’s mouth and drew blood. Gus came back with redoubled fury but Chris gave no ground. At times he staggered, for there were viciousness and power in Gus’ fists.
Then Chris got in another blow that started Gus’ nose bleeding. After another panting, struggling interval he landed heavily on the point of Gus’ chin.
Gus’ nose kept bleeding, smearing his face and his clothes, spotting the trampled snow. Finally Chris grunted with savage satisfaction as his left fist crashed into Ericson’s chin and knocked Gus flat on his back in the snow. Ericson got to his feet slowly after that but Chris knocked him down again, tie kept smacking him down with a cold relentlessness until Ericson quit. He lay on one elbow, head hanging, blood dripping bright into the snow.
“Get up!” Chris panted.
“I’ll get you for this,” Ericson vowed hoarsely. “I’ll have you arrested for assault.”
“Go ahead,” Chris urged. He dragged Gus to his feet by the collar of his smock. Gus got one arm over the edge of the sleigh box and hung there. “Go ahead and tell the police,” Chris invited. “But tell ’em what I licked you for. Remember what for? Or do I have to lick you some more?”
“About a fur coat,” Ericson mumbled.
“Keep rememberin’ that,” Chris warned.
Turning back to his own sleigh, he pulled on his coat, cap and mitts. Then he climbed up on the load.
“Giddap!” he said.
He began to feel a soreness in his hands. Then he became aware that his left eye was swelling shut. He held a handful of snow against it. When he reached the elevator, Marve Wissel, the grain buyer, exclaimed:
“Gosh! What happened to you, Chris?”
“Accident,” Chris said.
“Some accident!” Marve cried. “Like with a mule.”
On the way home Chris did not stop at Ragna’s house. If his eye looked as bad as it felt it would take some explaining. And if Ragna ever learned about the fight he guessed she would be angry. He felt shamefaced about it, anyway, because he was normally a good-tempered fellow. He supposed it was doing without coffee that made him feel different.
He grinned ruefully at the thought of how things might work out. Here he was doing without coffee to save it for Ragna—because he loved her. But that made him quarrelsome so that he picked a fight with Gus Ericson. And then maybe that would make Ragna sore at him.
He guessed he was old-fashioned, all right—especially about the way he loved Ragna. For him, she was not a woman to be talked about, the way Gus Ericson liked to talk about women.
Gradually he began to feel a glow of satisfaction aí the beating he had given Ericson. He guessed that was being old-fashioned, too, but he could not help the way he felt.
He had already passed the Larson gate when he heard Ragna calling. She came running out to the road so Chris stopped the horses. He kept his face to the front though, his left eye carefully hidden from her.
But out of the corner of his right eye he could see that she had a pretty blue house dress on. The blue of it was bright against the snow. She was bareheaded and her arms were bare. But she had overshoes on her feet—cute little velvet overshoes with fur trimming that snuggled prettily about her pretty ankles. She was like a flower, springing enchantingly from the snow-covered prairie.
“You’ll catch cold,” Chris scolded.
“Why didn’t you stop?” she demanded. When he was hauling her wheat he often stopped for a cup of coffee. “I made some buns for you.”
“Golly! Thanks, Ragna.”
He took the pan of buns and the horses started of their own accord.
“I gotta get home, Ragna,” Chris told her. “You get in out of the cold.” But she stood looking after him, puzzled. When it was safe for him to look back he watched her turn and walk slowly to the house. Against the background of the snow she seemed, more than ever, dainty and desirable.
FOR supper that night he had some of the buns that Ragna had baked for him. Also, because the buns made it something of an occasion, he used up the small stock of coffee left in the coffee mill. He drank the strong coffee slowly, trying to store up the taste of it in his memory against the lean days ahead. He thought of Ragna, trying to store up the look of her in his memory.
Since Ragna thought of him as an old man he could not say to her: “You’re lovely, Ragna Larson. I worship you, Ragna.” It would sound ridiculous, coming from him, even though that was the way he felt.
But the coffee seemed to give him a reckless courage. He began to think that he could tell her in a joking way, so that if he saw it was not going over he could pretend that he was fooling. He could say:
“Guess we better get married, Ragna, so as to double up on the coffee ration.”
That seemed like a safe approach. While he did the chores he rehearsed it so as to make it sound offhand and nonchalant. He kept saying it over while he walked along the road to the Larson house, trying for just the right careless tone of voice.
But there was no light in Ragna’s house. Then he remembered that this was the night she was going to the movies with Gus Ericson. At heart he felt relieved, because the nearer he got to Ragna’s house the more his courage had ebbed. He felt like a small boy who finds that the dentist is away.
He walked home, chuckling at the thought of how Gus would have to explain to Ragna about the marks on his face.
In the cold light of the following morning Chris was glad that Ragna had not been at home to hear his awkwardly camouflaged proposal.
“It was a crazy idea,” he told himself.
That day, after delivering the load of wheat, Chris stopped at Gus Svenson’s lunch stand for a cup of coffee. Gus was apologetic about his coffee. When he saw Chris wince at the first mouthful of the weak brew, Gus shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“Yeepers!” he complained. “Only vater iss not rationed. Maybe ve gotta use parched vheat yet—like dem drought-country fellers.”
“It’s an idea,” Chris said.
It was an idea that launched him on a series of not very successful experiments in making coffee substitutes.
His left eye was not noticeably discolored so Chris took Ragna’s mail home. He hoped that she would offer him a cup of good strong coffee but she did not even invite him in the house. Her manner was cool. Perhaps Ericson had told her about the fight.
For days he seldom saw her except when she was going some place with Ericson. It was hard to take. It was hard to keep from drowning his hurt in good strong coffee.
He was roasting a pan of wheat in the oven one day when Ragna came to his house. She came after his window curtains. Ragna always washed and ironed them for him because, although Chris kept his small house as clean as any woman could, he would never bother with window curtains. A bachelor had not time to fuss with curtains and tablecloths.
Ragna was friendly that day, the way she used to be before she started going with Gus Ericson. But Chris was ill at ease. He was afraid that she would discover the wheat parching in the oven. If she found out that he was making a coffee substitute she might suspect what he was saving his coffee for. And that would spoil the surprise he had planned for her.
Ragna took off her hat and began taking down the curtains, talking brightly all the while. Chris followed her from window to window, placing a chair for her to stand on. She was wearing a black dress of soft, clinging stuff that accentuated the shining gold of her hair and the satin smoothness of her skin. Standing on the chair, she looked like a lovely goddess on a pedestal.
Chris kept thinking how, in church, they have ritual prayers for tongue-tied fellows like himself. He thought that there should be similar things for lovers, so he could memorize them and repeat them reverently in Ragna’s presence. It was a good thing Ragna could not read his thoughts or she would be laughing at him. He was sure old-fashioned.
RAGNA paused after bundling up the curtains. Chris knew that she expected him to offer her a cup of coffee but he had none to give her. Not until Christmas. Even when she put on her coat and drew on her gloves, she did it slowly, expectantly.
Chris blinked wordlessly.
“There’s something burning,” she said suddenly.
Chris flushed. It was the wheat in the oven. He could smell it himself.
“I must’ve spilled something on the stove,” he told her.
“Are you all right, Chris?” she asked. “Is it my imagination, or have you been acting queerly lately?”
“I seem kind of queer to myself,” Chris burst out frankly. “You know what I think, Ragna? I think having to cut down on the coffee is a strain on a fellow who’s used to coffee the way I am. I don’t have coffee between meals any more.”
“It affects me the same way,” Ragna said ruefully.
Chris was relieved when she said good-by. Sometimes she poked about the kitchen and pantry to see that he was not getting careless about his housekeeping—to see if his pantry shelves had clean paper on them, and things like that. She might easily have taken a peek into his coffee mill to see how his coffee was holding out.
But by the time he had walked to the gate with her the wheat in the oven was burnt to a crisp.
That night Chris dreamed that Ragna and Gus Ericson were married on Christmas Day. The sourpuss jeweller was best man and he kept leering gleefully at Chris. When Chris gave Ragna the pound of coffee the jeweller chuckled and Gus Ericson said:
“That’s mighty thoughtful of you, Chris. I’ll be thinkin’ of you every time we have a cup of that coffee.”
One day Ragna rode to town with him to do her Christmas shopping.
“I’m expecting you for Christmas dinner, Chris,” she told him. For years he had gone to Ragna’s for Christmas dinner.
But they met Gus Ericson in town and Ragna invited Gus also. Gus accepted with alacrity—and with a malicious side glance at Chris.
“I’ll bring some mistletoe,” Gus declared, “in case you ain’t got any.”
All the way home Chris reflected moodily that the best thing for him to do would be to stay away from that Christmas dinner. Because if Ericson started fooling around with mistletoe and Ragna Larson, Chris knew that he would resent it. Likely he would do something old-fashioned and spoil the party.
He felt mighty low in his mind. About the only pleasure he had in those bleak days was thinking how delighted Ragna would be when he gave her the pound of coffee.
CHRISTMAS EVE was calm and very cold. The Northern Lights were flickering, fantastically, as Chris walked over to Ragna’s house. He had the bracelet and the pound of coffee with him.
“Merry Christmas, Ragna!” he told her, handing her the parcels. “I brought these over tonight because I maybe won’t be able to get here tomorrow.”
“Oh, Chris!” she cried reproachfully.
“Open ’em now,” he begged. He had a wistful longing to witness her pleasure when she opened the package of coffee. He guessed that would be about the only fun he had this Christmas.
Ragna opened the small parcel first while Chris twirled his fur cap, excited as a small boy. He was still standing by the door in his coon coat, and the melting snow from his overshoes made a pool of water on Ragna’s floor. But Chris did not notice that and Ragna did not say anything.
She cried out in delight when she saw the bracelet.
“It’s lovely, Chris!” she continued softly. She put the bracelet on her arm and held it out admiringly. And well she might, Chris thought, because it was a beautiful bracelet and a beautiful arm. But aloud, he said:
“Oh, it isn’t much.”
He supposed it wasn’t anything to the expensive present that Gus Ericson would give her.
“Open the other parcel, Ragna,” he urged.
He had wrapped the bag of coffee, not very neatly, in holly paper and smeared it with Christmas seals.
The glad light in Ragna’s eyes when she saw the coffee was worth all the suffering Chris had gone through to save it for her. She gave a little gasp. Then she laid the package on the table. She put her hands on the shoulders of his coon coat and kissed him full on the lips.
That was all right. Ragna had never kissed him before and he would have it to remember all his days. But he knew that it was just to show him her appreciation. He kept remembering about Ericson and his mistletoe and so his face remained stolid and unmoved.
“I’ve got some things for you too, Chris,” Ragna said. “If you really can’t come tomorrow you must open them now.”
He knew at once what was in the two parcels she brought him. Obviously, the long, flat package contained a tie. And the other was shaped like the shaving set his brother had sent him from Winnipeg. His sister’s kids in Saskatoon, too, had sent him the very same thing. People did not waste much thought on what they gave an old bachelor for Christmas.
As he opened the tie box Chris was thinking that he would have enough shaving soap to last him for years. But he would keep the stuff that Ragna gave him. He would keep it on the bureau in his room and he would never use it.
As he suspected, the long, flat package had a tie in it. It was a pretty tie, too, but a bit dull as to color.
“Golly! Thanks a lot, Ragna,” he said.
“Now the other parcel,” she ordered breathlessly.
There was a pretty paper around the box and Christmas seals on it and a card with the words, “Merry Christmas to Chris, from Ragna,” written in Ragna’s pretty, round hand. Chris slipped the card in his pocket secretly. He wanted to keep the card. He was old-fashioned, like Ragna said.
The shaving set was in a holly box. Chris took the lid off, getting ready to say that the shaving soap and stuff was just what he needed.
But it was not shaving stuff after all. The box was full of coffee beans! At least a pound of coffee beans!
Chris blinked his eyes. He stared wonderingly down at the coffee, thinking of Ragna doing without coffee all this time—for him. She had not been cool toward him as he had thought. She could not invite him in for coffee when she had no coffee herself.
All at once, Ragna began to laugh. She laughed until the tears came to her eyes and made them as bright as Christmas tree ornaments.
“Weren’t we silly, Chris!” she cried. “Each of us doing without coffee—so we could give it to the other!”
“It wasn’t silly,” Chris blurted out. “I love you more than coffee.”
Instantly he was sorry he had said it. For Ragna stopped laughing. Her tear-wet eyes had a pitying light in them that made him squirm. She came close to him where he stood, in a pool of snow water, awkwardly ashamed of himself for making such a break. She unbuttoned his coonskin coat and slipped right inside it. Her arms crept up around his neck.
“I love you, too, Chris,” she said, softly, “better than coffee—or anything.”
Her hair was like gold in the lamplight. Her hair was fragrant as the shaving lotion his brother had sent him from Winnipeg. Her eyes were blue as—as anything.
“Ragna!” he gasped. “Golly, Ragna!”
After a long time, Chris said:
“But you’ve been goin’ out with Ericson, Ragna.”
“I’m a poor, weak woman, Chris. And I do love coffee. Every time Gus took me to the movies, we went to a restaurant afterward — for coffee, Chris.”
“Anyway,” Chris chuckled, “we’ve got two pounds of coffee to start housekeeping on! And,” he added, “if that Ericson brings any mistletoe around here tomorrow I’ll bust him one.”
After another long time, Ragna cried, suddenly:
“Chris Lindstrom! Look at the snow water on my clean floor! Will I ever get an old bachelor like you housebroken?”
“It will sure be nice to have you try it, Ragna,” Chris said.