Ellen pumped the handle five times, then watched as water filled the big kettle her mother had given her just before they’d left Boston. A family heirloom, she’d said. Give it to your children someday.
Even though he’d stranded her in the middle of nowhere, Ellen was still grateful that Ethan had installed the pump inside the sod house so she wouldn’t have to go outside to fetch water. A small amenity in the rustic life he’d chosen for them.
Her heart cringed. Ethan. Will he come back? It’s been months.
Doubt it, her mind whispered. Would you? Ellen swallowed the lump in her throat. It’s Christmas. Think happy thoughts.
She hefted the kettle over to the stove, then bent down to adjust the grate. The coals were dwindling. She took five steps toward the door, then paused and counted to five before taking five more steps. She pushed a curtain aside and peered out the tiny glass window Ethan had given her for Christmas last year. Wisps of snow blew across the snow-covered prairie. It sparkled in the afternoon sun. Ellen squinted against the brightness that stabbed painfully into her eyes. She could just make out the tips of the trees Ethan had planted. Mere twigs bending in the wind.
Lifting her woolen cloak off its hook, she tugged it across her shoulders five times before fastening the clasp at her throat. One-two-three-four-five. The door opened and the wind filled her humble abode, driving away the heat the stove had labored all morning to produce.
The bitter winter air of the Dakota Territory stung her nose as she took the first of five steps toward the dwindling wood pile. Ethan hadn’t finished the task before he’d left. “Crazy woman!” he’d called her for the thousandth time, his brown eyes twinkling as they always did when he called her that. And then he was gone. Striding away across the summer prairie followed by their last remaining ox as he’d done a hundred times before, muttering his amused frustration with Ellen’s rituals.
But this time, he didn’t come back.
You should have searched for him more. Gone farther.
I was scared. It was too much to count—He could still come back.
He left you.
Maybe—No. He would never leave this land. This was his dream, not mine. Something happened.
Ellen used Ethan’s axe to break away the ice. Five strikes—pause. Five strikes—pause. Then she gathered the five chunks of split wood and turned to begin her return ritual. She shivered. The pale smoke from the soddy’s chimney beckoned, promising warmth inside.
A horse snorted. Ellen froze. Coming toward her from beyond Ethan’s now empty sod barn, the feathers dangling from the horse’s mane were an unmistakable identifier. Indian!
Heart racing, Ellen counted her way back to the soddy and slammed the door behind her—five times. She couldn’t count fast enough as she lowered the board into its holding slats—five times.
“Please go away— Please go away— Please go away— Please go away— Please go away—,” she whispered.
The soddy held its breath while the steady drip-drip from the hand-pump grew loud in Ellen’s ears. Her gaze darted to the big butcher knife on the table, then to the little window that had frosted over. Has he gone?
With a shaking hand she pushed the curtain aside and scraped a peep hole in the frost. The horse had stopped not fifty feet away and the Indian lay in the snow beside it, the edge of his buffalo hide shroud flapping in the wind.
Her breath caught in her throat: rabbits hanging from the horse’s side. Food!
Frozen with indecision, time ticked by until the sun sank to the edge of the world and turned the snow shadows blue. The Indian hadn’t moved.
Neither had Ellen.
He must be dead. Is it stealing if he’s dead? And the horse. She could ride him back to Boston in the spring.
There’s no hay to feed a horse.
Ellen clenched her fists. Fine then. I’ll eat him.
Ellen counted her steps to the table and back, retrieving the big knife. Be brave.
Five times she lifted the board before swinging it away and opening the door. Open-close, open-close, open-close, open-close, open!
The horse snorted, pointing his frost-tipped ears her direction. “Easy there,” she whispered, taking her first five steps toward the wooly beast as the sun disappeared over the horizon. Pause and count.
Don’t look at the Indian. If you don’t look, he isn’t really there.
She held the knife his direction anyway, and kept counting.
The horse stepped toward her, its big brown eyes framed by frost covered lashes.
Another five steps. Pause and count.
The horse stretched out its neck, nostrils flared. It snorted again, then shook its head.
Ellen stroked its velvety nose. The horse lowered its head and stepped closer, snuffling against Ellen’s cloak. “C’mon,” she said, tugging the rope around its face. The horse lurched behind her, breaking through the hard crust on the drifts—five steps at a time—and into Ethan’s empty sod barn.
“There, that’s better.” Ellen tugged the stringer of rabbits. There were five. She smiled.
Merry Christmas to me.
“Not so windy in here, right?”
The horse sniffed the sod walls and tugged out some dead grass.
“If you eat your shelter, you’re on your own.” Ellen patted his furry neck. “I can bring you some water, though.”
She stepped out into the wind. Five steps—pause and count. The moon glowed low in the sky. Ice crystals twinkled in the snow. Five steps—pause and count. The Indian’s cloak flapped harder.
Was his hand in the air like that before?
Was it? Was it? Was it? Was it? Was it?
You have to check.
What if he kills me?
It’s murder if you let him freeze to death.
Ellen stared at his still form. Snow had begun to drift around him.
You’re probably going to die before spring, anyway.
Ellen turned. Five steps—pause and count.
His hand moved.
Now you have to help him. You can’t let a man die on Christmas. It wouldn’t be right.
Five steps—pause and count. Five steps—pause and count.
She reached down and grabbed his fur-covered feet. Grunting, she tugged him across the hard drifts. Five tugs—pause and count. Five tugs—pause and count. Her gaze settled on his face. It was wrapped in fur, only his closed eyes and nose showed. Icicles clung to his lashes. His long dark hair—frozen to his skin—obscured what little she could see of his wind-chapped features.
That looks like frost bite on his nose.
Five tugs—pause and count. Her heart pounded from the exertion.
She lifted the edge of the buffalo hide. Beaded leather pants and shirt. Bone-handled knife in his belt. She took the knife and threw it away into the darkness. Why make it easy for him?
Into the soddy and across the dirt floor away from the door. She left him lying there and stepped over to the stove. She opened it and peeked inside. Only a few embers remained. She loaded the five sticks of wood, then opened the damper—five times. The embers glowed, then fire licked around the wood. Soon they began to crackle as the flames whooshed toward the stove-pipe. She adjusted the damper and heat radiated into the room.
She skinned the rabbits and set the hides aside. Making mittens would help fill her days. She dropped the scrawny carcasses into the kettle, then dug in the pantry for the last two potatoes and a single carrot. Into the pot. It is Christmas, after all.
She glanced at the Indian. He hadn’t moved. Steam rose from his clothes releasing the odor of buffalo skin. Ellen’s nose crinkled. She tugged an old blanket from the trunk at the foot of her bed and tossed it over him. It helped block the smell, but only a little.
Five steps—pause and count. Lift the bucket, five times. Five pumps—pause and count. Five pumps—pause and count. She hauled the bucket of water out to the horse, five steps at a time. Icy snow pelted her as the wind began to howl.
Obscured by the blowing snow, the soddy had become a white lump in the darkness. The dim glow from the little window guided her. She counted faster.
The stench of buffalo hide greeted her. He hadn’t moved.
Too late to change your mind now.
She tugged the buffalo hide away and tossed it outside.
His clothes are wet.
Ellen glared at the soggy Indian, then reached down to straighten the wool blanket.
Ethan’s clothes would fit him.
The Indian groaned. His eyes fluttered open. Brown. Like Ethan’s.
Of course they are. All Indian’s have brown eyes, don’t they?
She mustered as much courage as she could find and marched to the stove. It was hard to conjure bravado and count at the same time. Stirring the rabbit stew, she picked out the bones as the meat fell away. She kept her gaze averted. If he’s going to kill me, I don’t want to see it coming.
Pulling the flour canister from the shelf, she moved to the table.
The Indian’s eyes bored holes into her back. At least, it felt like it.
She hummed Silent Night while she used the last of the flour to make five sourdough biscuits. Then she lifted the five Christmas candles out of the trunk and set them in the middle of the table. Her eyes stung for a moment, thinking of Ethan and how he’d mocked her for insisting on having five. “Why do you have to do everything in fives?” he’d asked, rolling his eyes.
She couldn’t answer.
Ellen pushed Ethan out of her mind and lit the candles.
“Supper will be ready in five minutes,” she said, without looking at him.
Her hands shook as she pulled the biscuits out of the oven.
She heard him stir.
Is he standing now?
No, still on the floor. He took the furs off his head.
She pushed three biscuits into one bowl and two in the other, then she ladled rabbit stew over them. “Merry Christmas,” she said, holding a bowl out to him.
He stared at her, a puzzled expression on his bruised and swollen face.
He looks like he was in a fight.
“It’s food,” she said, gesturing to her mouth. He took the bowl.
She went to the table and sat down, pushing her bowl away until after she’d said her prayers. Wind moaned around the soddy. A skiff of snow blew under the door, then melted.
The Indian watched her leave the table. His gaze followed as she rolled one of Ethan’s shirts five times, then stuffed it under the door.
“It’s Christmas today, you know,” she said, just to fill the silence as she returned to the little table. A log shifted in the stove.
Avoiding his piercing eyes, Ellen stabbed a spoon into her bowl and for a moment, she forgot about the Indian as she savored her food. It’d been months since she’d had meat.
Rising slowly to his feet, the Indian winced as he shed the blanket . Then he paused a moment before folding it neatly—five times.
Ellen watched, her mouth agape and her heart thumping in her chest.
He carried his bowl to the table and sat down, then lifted his gaze to meet hers as he took up his spoon. “Merry Christmas…crazy woman.” He smiled and winked, his eyes twinkling.