All characters herein are copyright the Lassie folks,
whatever name they're going under these days,
except for Mr. Preble and the unseen Mrs. Sunderland,
who are my creations along with the story itself. This takes place during second season.
It seemed almost every Lassie era had its Christmas story: Timmy celebrated four Christmases, Corey Stuart three, and even Bob Erickson "took his turn." But while a Christmas show was pretty much the norm on all the 1950s series, the Jeff episodes never did have one...until, unofficially, now.
Ellen Miller paused in what she was doing, floury hands set on her aproned hips. "Oh, for heaven's sake," she said in exasperation. Now that she was deep in what she was doing, creating an egg custard pie for dessert, she had just discovered she was short two eggs.
Glancing at her white hands, then shaking her head, she rinsed them in the sink, then went looking for Jeff. She knocked on his closed bedroom door, got no answer, and peeked in the room. It was empty.
When she returned to the kitchen, she discovered her father- in-law surreptitiously sampling one of the cookies she had taken out of the oven earlier. "Really, Dad! You're as bad as Jeff!"
Caught in the act, George Miller promptly dropped half the gingersnap he was eating. Lassie, who had followed him though the kitchen door, took the opportunity to wolf down the treat, then looked back up at him expectantly, eyes bright, wagging her tail.
Ellen shook her finger at the big collie. "Don't you start!" and the dog whined, then retreated to the warmth under the stove. Now Ellen turned back to the older man.
"Dad, you are dripping all over my clean floor," she scolded, and Gramps looked down at his snow-encrusted boots guiltily. "Now take off those wet boots and coat and get me the mop, please."
"Gol-darn it, Ellen, I'm not a child," he said testily, leaning against the back door to tug off his boots.
"You act just like Jeff," Ellen pointed out. "Is it snowing again?"
"Just flurryin' right now," Gramps answered, removing the second boot with a thump. "But sky to the north is thick with more snow clouds. We're going to get a gullywhumper of a snowstorm, it looks like, sometime after dark."
Ellen turned back to the task at hand, now looking a bit worried. "Where's Jeff?"
"He ain't gonna get caught in no snowstorm, if that's what you're wonderin'," Gramps snorted as he hung up his coat. "And even if he did, he's a country boy. He knows what to do."
"A lot of other country boys thought that, too, before they were frozen to death between the house and the barn," she answered sharply.
Gramps interrupted her loudly, "In any case, no need to fret. He and Porky are in the barn, up in the loft. I caught 'em up there when I took down a bale of hay for Daisy and Domino. Cookin' up somethin' for Christmas, I wager, from the way they kept quiet when they saw me."
"Oh, well, then..." Nevertheless she went to the door and called outside, "Je-efff!"
"Don't torment the boy, Ellen," Gramps remonstrated as he helped himself to some coffee from the stove. It was hot and fragrant and the eddies of steam made him sniff appreciatively.
"He'll have to be tormented if he wants dessert tonight," Ellen said, still in the doorway, smiling as she watched the drifting snowflakes dance around the yard between the old farmhouse and the barn. "Jeff!"
The dark head of her twelve-year-old son popped from around the barn door. "Mom?"
"Sweetie, I need two more eggs if you want custard pie for supper. Could you get a couple for me?" She eyed the thickening clouds in the sky speculatively. "You might as well gather as many as you can."
"Sure, Mom," he said, his head vanishing.
She gave the snowflakes a last, appreciative look, then retreated inside. Gramps was seated at the far side of the table now, sipping his coffee, with his legs stretched out, getting his feet warm.
"Did you get the tree mounted on the stand, dear?" she asked.
"Hours ago," Gramps said dismissively.
"The Brockways called a little while ago," Ellen said as she removed the gingersnaps from their tray and put them in a dish upon the sideboard. "Birdie wanted to know if we'd care to have dinner with them."
Gramps looked at her curiously, "Ain't they celebrating with Matt's folks up Creston way?"
"All of the children have the measles," explained Ellen, inserting the last pan of gingersnaps into the oven. "Porky mentioned the big goose we were having this year to his mother, and Birdie wondered if we might share our goose if they offered the hospitality of their house and she'd fix all the vegetables." Gramps was looking at her with lowered brow and she added, "Birdie said she'd make those creamed onions of hers, the ones you like so much."
Now the almost-frown was replaced by the beginnings of a smile. "I suppose that might be all right."
"I told her it would be fine," Ellen said warmly. "I thought instead of falling asleep in front of the fire after dinner, you and Matt might have a game of checkers, and the boys could play..."
"Asleep!" Gramps interrupted. "I don't fall asleep! I'm just relaxing after a good dinner!"
Ellen felt like teasing and said lightly, "Then I suppose you snore when you relax, dear."
"Snore! Now, see here, Ellen, only decrepit old men snore-"
Jeff and Porky burst through the back door just then, Jeff holding the basket out of the way as they thundered in. "- quit horsin' around, Pork, you're gonna break 'em!"
Suddenly aware of both adults' eyes upon them, they stopped, then Jeff stepped forward, handing a basket with a small collection of eggs to his mother. "Here you go, Mom."
"Thanks, sweetie," and she kissed him. "Ooooh, your cheeks are cold. How can you stay in the barn so long? Even Lassie came in to get warm."
He cast a look at the dog under the stove, half asleep. "So this is where you got off to, lazy," he said affectionately. Lassie was on her feet in an instant, thrusting her long nose in Jeff's hand. "Did we bore you?"
Lassie woofed and Gramps laughed. "You can always count on Lassie for a straight answer!"
"So," Ellen said casually, taking two eggs from the basket, and returning to her custard, "what were you doing in the barn?"
"We were talking about the stuff we...oof!" Porky began, punctuated by Jeff's jab of an elbow in his side. "I mean, about...Christmas. It is tomorrow, you know."
Ellen laughed, "Yes, dear, I know. In fact I have some good news for you boys."
Jeff's face was all "lighted up," bright with some suspected secret. "What, Mom?"
Ellen caught Porky looking longingly at the custard she was mixing as both boys removed their coats and boots. "You boys hungry?"
Porky blinked. "Well...yes, ma'am."
"Jeff, why don't you pour some milk and you and Porky can start on those cookies. I'll be making peppermint ones later."
"Oh, swell!" Porky exclaimed, but Jeff still stared at his mother expectantly, "What surprise, Mom?"
"Let's get the cookies first, Jeff," Porky suggested.
Ellen smiled but kept silent.
"Oh, come on, Mom," Jeff begged, seeing the grin on her face. "Please, pretty please."
Porky insisted, "Cookies, pretty please?"
"Sheesh, Porky," Jeff sighed, crossing to the icebox for the pitcher of milk, "you're always starvin'. Mom, please, what's the secret?"
Now Gramps got in on the act. "Perhaps your mother doesn't want to tell you right away."
"Then why would she bring it up?" Jeff returned. "Mom?"
Ellen hummed a bit of a Christmas carol, then laughed. "Oh, all right. The secret is that we're not eating at home tomorrow."
"We're not?" the boy exclaimed. With cookies in one hand and a glass of milk in the other, he had collapsed in one of the kitchen chairs, his features plainly astonished. Lassie ambled up to him and laid her head in his lap, her nose wriggling at the spicy smell of the cookies. "But...we always eat at home. Are we going to see Grandma?"
"No, dear. Mother's expecting us for New Year's, as always. But I found out today that the Brockways won't be going visiting as usual for Christmas-" and here Ellen smiled as she paused, for Porky seemed open-mouthed with the news, "so we will be eating there instead."
There was silence for a moment, then Jeff sat forward. "Honest, Mom?" with Porky chiming in, "Gee whilikers, Miz Miller!"
"Yep!" she said, imitating their slang.
"Oh, that's keen, Mom!" "We can go out coasting after dinner and-" "This is going to be swell, Mom!" "-and my mom will make creamed onions..."
Somewhere in the bedlam Lassie began to bark and finally they were settled down to munch cookies and drink their milk while Ellen finished the custard and poured it into the pie shell. By then the last batch of gingersnaps was finished and she could fill the dish again.
The boys had finished their snack as she began to set up for the peppermint cookies.
"Mom," Jeff said as he wiped his mouth, "can me and Porky-" She flashed him such a look that he amended, "Can Porky and I go into Calverton?"
"May Porky and I go into Calverton," she further amended.
"Well, may we?"
Gramps was getting out of his chair. "What do you kids need to be gallavanting to Calverton for?"
Porky's errant mouth almost gave them away again. "We're going to go to the-"
"Por-kee!" Jeff said, exasperated, and the chubby boy shut his mouth and brought both his and Jeff's milk glasses to the sink where he studiously rinsed them and kept quiet.
"I thought you boys had finished all your Christmas shopping," Ellen said as she gracefully mixed a new batch of dough.
"I...we...we have," her son said quickly. "We just want to look around...at all the decorations. It's awful pretty. Right, Pork?"
Ellen was about to ask when the two usually grubby boys had become interested in "pretty," but she took pity on them. Jeff added, "We won't be all that long, Mom. We'll be home in plenty of time for supper."
Since Porky was staying for supper, Ellen was certain of that. "Well, go ahead then. It's not the dark I'm worried about as much as the snow."
"It's going to snow later," Gramps advised. "Looks like sometime after sundown. So you make sure you're home on time, you hear?"
"Yes, sir," Jeff said gladly. "Mom?"
"Oh, all right." She looked down and discovered Lassie pressed close to her, sniffing industriously at the table. "It will at least get you and this cookie moocher out of my hair!"
"Thanks, Mom!" Jeff caroled as they headed for their coats.
"Coats and hats and gloves," Ellen advised, "or you don't go. I'm not rushing you to the hospital with frostbite on Christmas Eve."
"Yes, Mom," Jeff said routinely, jamming his winter cap on his head and pulling on his gloves.
A few minutes later, Gramps was heading out to the barn again, buttoning his coat, when he saw the boys swing their bicycles out the front gate, balancing carefully on the coating of snow already on the road. As expected, Lassie was loping next to them, but he noticed with curiosity that each of the boys had a big paper sack in his bicycle basket.
"Hmph! Wonder what that's all about?" he snorted before disappearing into the barn.
Although the rutted roads were slow going, the boys pedaled their way safely into the small town of Calverton. They disposed of the mysterious packages with a quiet satisfaction, then wheeled their bikes to the nearby fire station. They knew a place behind the station where they could park the bikes safely until they could return.
Then, now laughing and roughhousing and discussing Christmas dinner the next day, they made their way to the main shopping area of the small town. The streets were crowded with people doing last minute shopping, and they met several schoolmates.
Just as they approached the sporting goods store, a loud boy's voice hailed them. "Hey, Jeff, hey, Porky!"
Porky rolled his eyes. "Woody."
A tall, chunky dark-haired boy in a checked hunting jacket and hunting cap with earmuffs came sauntering up. "How you guys doin'?"
"We're doin'," Jeff responded warily. Lassie, who usually trotted up to most of Jeff's school friends with a friendly wag, sat down and watched him.
"You guys finishin' your Christmas shopping?" Woody asked in his usually cocky voice.
"Naw, we finished ours weeks ago," Porky answered.
"Bought out the five and dime, eh?" Woody joked. "Hey, ya wanna see something?"
"What?" Jeff asked.
Woody waved his hand expansively toward the window of the sporting goods store. There was an flashy-looking rod and reel set perched tantalizingly before their eyes, with an expensive price tag prominently displayed. "That's what I'm gettin' for Christmas. It's got real steel fittings and super ball bearings in the reel."
"You are not," Porky retorted.
"You callin' me a liarSylvester?" Woody answered, menacing, stepping forward.
"He's not calling anyone a liar," Jeff the peacemaker said, stepping in. "That's just a pretty big Christmas gift for any kid to be getting."
"Well, I'm getting it," answered Woody. "My dad goes fishing all the time and he wants me to have proper equipment, not creaky old rod and reel-"
"Woodrow!" called a woman's voice from across the street, and Jeff and Porky saw Woody's mother, clad in an expensive green wool coat and standing next to their new sedan, waving to him.
"Your ma's calling you," Porky said.
"Yeah, I know," Woody said, turning casually. "See ya. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas," the boys said less enthusiastically.
"D'you suppose," Porky said, indicating the rod and reel set with a cold hand, because, boylike, they had tugged off their hats and gloves the moment they were out of Ellen's sight, "that Woody's really getting that for Christmas?"
"I guess he could be lying," Jeff replied, more for his bruised ego's benefit. Woody's dad ran the local milk processing plant and made a lot of money.
"Yeah, but I bet he ain't."
They walked on gloomily for a few minutes, then the sound of a bell came to them. Just ahead, a Salvation Army woman was rhythmically ringing a small handbell, standing next to her kettle.
Jeff watched her, and the well-dressed people who dropped change and even occasionally a paper bill in her kettle. "But I guess we aren't that bad off."
Porky followed his gaze and his plump face transformed with a little smile. "Yeah, you're right. So we don't get an old rod and reel with real steel fittings and super ball bearings. Who cares?"
Jeff fished in his pocket and found a nickel for the kettle, but Porky came up empty except for the dime he was hoarding for candy. Still, it was something.
Lassie trotted after them, rather forgotten in the orgy of window shopping, but perfectly happy. Every few steps some child would pet her, and there were delicious scents all around. Outside Preble's Grocery Store, the grocer himself was giving away free candy canes. He gave Jeff and Porky one each, then looked at the collie's alert face and bright eyes. Lassie was wagging her tail enthusiastically.
"Candy's not good for dogs, Doc Weaver says," Jeff said regretfully.
"So it isn't. Wait a minute," Mr. Preble said and disappeared inside, to the boys' puzzlement. Presently he was back with a nice beef bone with shreds of meat and fat still on it. "Mrs. Abernathy came in for some stew beef, but she didn't want the bone. Here you go, Lassie! Merry Christmas!"
Lassie woofed and took the bone and would have lain down to gnaw on it right then and there, but Jeff and Porky said "Merry Christmas" in return to Mr. Preble and then continued walking down the street until they came to that paradise of paradises, the big five and dime store. She trotted behind them, the coveted bone tight in her teeth.
Once they were safely across the street, Lassie had an opportunity to enjoy her bone, because in the wide, clean doorway in front of the five and dime, Jeff told her to stay and he and Porky disappeared inside. She curled up and blissfully began to chew at the delicious bone. People came and went around her, and, although a few people grumbled, most people knew her and called out "Hi, Lassie!" as they entered the store and did not bother her. Lem Boots even slipped her a peppermint drop when he came out and Jim Teal, Joe King, and Jeff's teacher Miss Vernon both stopped to pet her.
Inside, Jeff and Porky were having a grand time. They licked and nibbled the candy canes as they strolled the aisles, looking at the older boys' games and the hunting supplies back in the hardware aisle. They looked at the Christmas decorations and the little canaries for sale in the pet department. They met Miss Vernon and spoke with her politely. You never knew what to say to a teacher outside of school!
Meanwhile the shoppers finished their shopping and started home. The flurries turned into a light snow. Smaller businesses locked up and darkened, turning their "Closed" signs to the forefront. Lassie finished her bone, and then, heaving a sigh at the door to the five and dime, empty of her favorite face, she left her post and went visiting.
She didn't go far and didn't stay long. She stopped to say hello to Clay Horton, the town constable, in his office catercorner from the five and dime. Two doors down was Doc Weaver, and the vet gave her a dog biscuit. Lastly she ventured another block and barked at the rear door of the little white house owned by Jenny, the town operator. Jenny let her in, toweled her wet coat, gave her a hot cookie, all the while answering phones.
She was gone about a half hour, and when she returned to the door, she could tell by sniffing that Jeff and Porky had not yet emerged. The snow was falling thickly now and dusk had already fallen. Too, the wind had risen and had a bite in it.
Lassie began to bark.
The last few customers in the store coming toward the door could hear her, and, at the candy counter buying a big bag of rock candy and ribbon candy and peppermint drops, Porky heard her, too. "Holy smoke! Jeff!"
Jeff, a few aisles away staring rather longingly at a book about ranch life, suddenly came aware of time and place. He looked with startled eyes outside, at the darkening windows and the blowing snow, listening to Lassie bark. "Jiminy, Porky! We told Mom we'd be home before dark. And look at it snow!"
Porky thrust his dime at the tired-looking candy cashier and was moving away before he remembered to turn around and say to the woman, "Merry Christmas, ma'am, and thanks!" and was rewarded with a smile.
Jeff threw his arms around Lassie as they exited the store. "Golly, Lassie, thanks!" He looked around, then took the ill-regarded cap and gloves from his pocket and put them on. "Boy, Porky, are we gonna catch it."
He held the bag of candy while Porky put on his own hat and gloves and buttoned his coat. "You said it. C'mon, this way."
"We can't ride our bikes home in this, goofy," Jeff retorted. "We're gonna have to walk now."
"Swell," Porky grumbled, bending his head and following his best friend out into the wind. Lassie plunged ahead of them, and they followed in her tracks.
Ellen loved to bake for Christmas and to say that she had been totally immersed in her cooking that afternoon was an understatement. Her peppermint cookies were a favorite of everyone and since they were going to the Brockways, she decided to bake a larger amount than usual. Part of the dough was colored with red food coloring, then she twisted a red stick and a white stick together to make candy canes. They were a lot of work, but they looked lovely and tasted better, so she made several dozens and also started a pot of soup simmering for supper.
So it was quite a surprise to her when the wind picked up and made a whistling noise around the drafty windows of the house. With a start she checked the clock, then ran to the back door and peered outside. It was grey outside, growing dark quickly, and the snow was now falling thickly.
She grabbed her coat from the rack near the door, slipping on her boots, unmindful of her floury hands or apron, and stepped outside, immediately ducking her head, for the wind bit at her ears. Quickly she reached back inside for her fur hat, pulled it on, then scampered to the barn, where the warm light of a lantern beckoned her.
The door creaked as she opened it, and the warm smell of the cow and the colt assailed her nose. Gramps was at his workbench and had she not been so upset, she would have taken a long look to admire his work.
He had done his afternoon chores, then, just before the snowfall had thickened, had gone out to the woodlot to fetch some greens he had picked the day before. He had planned to make several wreaths for the windows and the doors, but now with this invitation to the Brockways, he had another idea. He took a log basket used many Christmases before, stored in the rear of the loft, and filled it with as many different types of fragrant greens as he had: firs, pines, and aromatic cedar. Now all he needed was some red ribbon surely Ellen had some in her sewing collectionand it would be a nice gift for Birdie Brockway.
His whistling of "Joy to the World" was interrupted by Ellen's urgent, "Dad! Are Jeff and Porky here?"
As the boys had been absorbed in the store, Gramps had been equally absorbed in his project. "Tarnation, no. Ain't they home yet?"
"No, and look at how hard it's snowing," Ellen said insistently.
"You called around? Maybe they got as far as someone's house."
"Dad, let's just get the car and go look for them. Did you put the chains on?"
"Yep, did it this morning. Look, I'll get the machine warmed up and turned around. You go inside and give Jenny a call. Maybe they're at someone's house about to call us."
When Ellen climbed in the big car a few minutes later, she looked perturbed. She handed Gramps his fur hat and his gloves and he gratefully pulled them on, chafing his cold fingers. "Any word?"
"No word from anyone but Jenny. She said Lassie was at her house over a half hour ago. Oh, Dad..."
"Now, stop fretting. Stores in Calverton close early on Christmas Eve. Those young scamps are probably on their way home. In fact, I'll bet you they came through the back road. Saves two mile and it would come directly here."
"Dad, the back road's so deserted and it's so rough for bicycles!"
Gramps looked at the thickening snow. "Jeff's a Miller and he ain't stupid. I suspect he and Porky are on foot. Jeff knows a bike wouldn't do any good in weather like this."
He patted her. "Cheer up, Ellen. They got Lassie with 'em to boot."
And at that he nosed the car out of the farmyard and down the snowy, uneven road.
"Jeff, I'm freezing. Let's stop, just for a minute."
Porky had huddled next to a big oak tree, out of the sharp wind, and Jeff halted in his tracks, turning to face his friend. It was getting darker by the minute and Porky's round face was becoming unfocussed. "Don't you pay attention to anything, Porky? Remember the story about the Arctic explorers in the last 4H magazine? If you stop in the snow you'll freeze. You get sleepy and fall asleep and then you die. Now, come on!"
Lassie apparently agreed with him, for she bounded next to the heavyset boy, barking, then nipped at his legs.
"Owww! Lassie, cut it out!" Porky grumbled, joining his friend on the road again. They had their heads lowered into the wind as Lassie did, plodding resolutely through the whipping snow. Both had their hands thrust deep in their pockets, but every so often one of them would have to reluctantly reach out a hand to brush snow away from their eyes or mouth.
"Gramps was sure right when he said it was going to snow," Jeff said loudly.
"Yeah, and we shoulda listened to him better, too. We shoulda never gone in town. What a dumb idea."
"What we did was a good idea," Jeff argued. "We just shouldn't have stayed in the store too long. That was the dumb part."
They were quiet a few minutes, and then Porky said, "Jeff, you suppose we'll freeze out here? I don't want Mom and Pop finding my body out here looking like a popsicle."
"Don't be a dope," Jeff said, scornful. "We were only three miles from home starting out and I bet we've walked at least a mile already. Two miles ain't nothin'. We walk that doing nature projects for school all the time."
"Yeah, but it ain't in the middle of a snowstorm, neither," Porky argued.
"We're on the road," the other boy said stubbornly. "We follow the road, we get home."
And now they trudged in silence, one hard step after the other. They were walking into the wind and they grew colder and colder. Tears from the cold ran from Jeff's eyes and froze on his cheeks. Soon ahead of him all he could see was Lassie's tail, a beacon of brown fur in the swirling snow.
"C'mon, Porky! We're getting closer! I think I see our fenceline!"
When there was no sound behind him, he turned. Porky was gone!
Then Lassie began to bark.
"Confounded snow," Gramps growled for the tenth time as he peered forward. The windshield wipers were beating furiously but it didn't seem to keep the snow away from the windshield at all. He was crawling at five miles an hour, peering ahead in the glare of the headlights.
"Dad, maybe I should drive," Ellen suggested finally, knowing it would hurt his feelings but driven by fear. "Please."
"Ellen, you tell me you could see better than I can right now if I let you drive," he said testily.
"Well, I guess not but..." There was an edge of a sob in her voice that he hated. "But at least I would be doing something."
"You're helpin' me look!" he insisted and just then something flashed in the headlights.
"Dad!" Ellen cried out, "Look! That's Lassie!"
The collie had planted herself in front of the car, barking furiously, and Gramps jammed on the brakes just in time. The car slid a little as it stopped.
Ellen burst from the passenger side of the car. "Jeff! Jeff! Porky!"
Jeff's glad cry faintly answered her. "We're here, Mom! Porky got his legs tangled in some old branch and I'm just getting him out."
Ellen and Gramps floundered in the snow a few feet, following Lassie's dancing form, to where Porky was just regaining his feet. The storm had first knocked a tree branch in the road, then covered it with drifting snow, so that the boys had missed it completely until Porky had caught his ankle in the twisted branches. Unashamed, Jeff rushed into his mother's arms. "Oh, Mom, are we glad to see you!"
"I'll say, Miz Miller," Porky said, cleaning snow out of his collar.
Ellen hugged Jeff, the tension in her body obvious even to him. It almost seemed to the boy as if she was crying, and he exclaimed, "Mom, we're awfully, awfully sorry. We were in the five and dime and we lost track of time. If Lassie hadn't started barking, we woulda probably been in there until they closed and not even noticed it was snowing. I'm sorry I worried youhonest."
Ellen started to say something, choked on her words, and Gramps interceded. "We'll tend to that when we get back to the house. Right now we ought to get you boys back where it's warm and dryand if we don't do it soon, the car's goin' to get dug in and we'll all have to walk. Hurry up, get in."
Hours later, now warm and dry, Jeff and Porky were helping Ellen decorate the Christmas tree while Gramps relaxed on the sofa, smoking his pipe, a wreath of blue, maple-scented smoke encircling his head, and watching their progress after mounting a silver and blue tree topper at the crest of the evergreen. First Ellen had turned on the radio and found a program of Christmas carols. She hummed along to them as they had wound strings of popcorn and cranberries, strung the previous night, around the fragrant fir.
Next, one by one, they hung all the ornaments from as many branches as they could reach, ornaments as old as Gramps' childhood, both store-bought and homemade, including old- fashioned cornucopias and gilded walnuts, and newer ones collected by Ellen and Jeff's father, and those bought by Ellen at the five and dime for Jeff. There were shiny multicolored balls in different colors, some flocked with white; silver and gold icicle shapes, beaded ornaments, plastic figures of snow boots and Santas and reindeer.
Finally Ellen shooed the boys back to the sofa where they flopped down to either side of Gramps and she hung the delicate silver icicles herself. When she finished, she went to the wall switch and flipped it. The tree burst into multicolor light and Lassie barked approvingly.
"How's that?" she asked with a smile.
"Gosh, Mom," Jeff said in awe, "it always looks swell."
Things had been fairly quiet since they had arrived home. Ellen had made the boys strip off their snow-encrusted clothing and then bundle themselves in bathrobes, Jeff in his own and Porky in Gramps', while they sat before the stove with their feet in hot water, drinking hot tea. Gramps had toweled off Lassie without a word and fed the dog her dinner, but she did not eat it until they had supper, instead keeping close to Jeff, now redressed in pajamas and thick socks, as was his friend, because there were no slippers for Porky.
Ellen had called the Brockways and without giving away much about the boys' mishap, suggested that perhaps because of the storm Porky could stay overnight. Birdie replied sensibly that it was a good idea; still she teared up when she said goodnight to Porky, who told Jeff a little morosely that he hadn't ever spent a Christmas Eve away from home in his "whole life."
He almost sounded as if he were sniffling when he asked his mother not to touch his stocking, but later confided to Jeff that he was certain his dad suspected something and he was in for a hiding when he got home next day.
"Shucks," Jeff said, "nobody gets licked on Christmas."
"Well, next day then!"
Supper was the rich chicken soup, swimming with vegetables and meat, that Ellen had cooked up during her baking, along with baked potatoes drenched in fresh butter. Dessert was the custard pie and even Porky looked satisfied at the end of that meal.
Now as they looked at the tree, Ellen gave Gramps a peculiar look the boys did not understand but he did. He rose from the sofa, tamping his pipe, and ambled across the room to his chair near the fire, leaving Ellen to take his place between the two boys. Jeff let out a big sigh.
"Now," she said. "Suppose you tell me what happened this afternoon."
Jeff shrugged. "We told you in the car, Mom. We went to Calverton and we got dopey looking in the store. We forgot what time it was and only remembered when Lassie started barking."
Gramps gave a ruminative suck on his pipe. "You never did say why you were really going to Calverton. What was that you had in your bicycle baskets, anyway?"
Jeff looked startled and Ellen gave her father-in-law a curious glance. "Did you take something to town, sweetie?"
He said reluctantly, "Yeah, we did but-"
"But what?" Ellen was curious now. "Jeff, I'm not angry, now I'm just wondering."
Porky said with a shrug, "I don't see why we can't tell her, Jeff. We ain't bragging-"
"Aren't bragging," Ellen corrected automatically.
"-aren't bragging, we're just telling."
Jeff shrugged himself. "I guess so. Well, it all started last Saturday. You remember I came home and I ran in my room real fast?"
Ellen nodded. He had darted past her like wolves were after him, although it was only faithful Lassie trotting in his wake.
"Well, we were out near Tucker's Woods that day..."
"We were looking for late persimmons, Miz Miller," Porky chimed in. "They're real good if you can find them."
"So anyway," Jeff continued, "we heard someone yelling-"
"Yelling his head off," Porky supplied.
"Who's telling this story," Jeff asked, injured, "me or you?"
Porky made a face and sat back.
"So anyway it was Jim Teal calling us. That calf of his, the prize one that he's entering in the stock show in Capitol City in the spring, was stuck in the ditch that comes out of Tucker's Creek. So me and Porky-"
"Porky and I."
"-Porky and I went to help him."
"You should have seen that calf!" Porky spoke up in awe. "He was stuck in the ditch near up to his knees in awful mud. Mr. Teal couldn't get him out alone."
"It didn't take long with all four of us," Jeff continued. "Porky and I pulled at his head and Mr. Teal pushed the back of him and Lassie barked at him so he wanted to move. It only took about ten minutes. But when we got out we were wet to the knees and covered in mud, too, just like the calf. Mr. Teal said he couldn't let us go home looking like that, so he took us back to his house and put our feet in hot water like you did with us today and fed us hot chocolate."
"And Mrs. Teal," Porky contributed, "rinsed out our jeans and socks and sneakers. She put the jeans through the wringer and then ironed the water out of 'em and she sat our socks and sneakers in the oven."
"So that's why you ran through here," Ellen laughed, "so I couldn't see your pants. I thought they looked odd when I put them in the laundry."
"Anyway," Jeff finished, "when we got dressed Mr. Teal said we deserved a reward for helping him do that messy job. I told him we didn't do it for a reward, but he insisted. He said he knew boys needed money before Christmas."
Now he paused to give Porky the punch line and his friend took it. "He gave us each a silver dollar, Miz Miller!"
Gramps coughed. "Old Jim's going soft in the head!"
"Dad!" remonstrated Ellen.
"Well," Jeff continued, "of course we made a bunch of plans on the way home to spend it. We were gonna buy stuff for ourselves, then I figured I might buy an extra present for you and Gramps and get something for me, too, and Porky was going to do the same with his folks. And then we went to church on Sunday. You remember, Dr. Harding reminded everyone about the grocery bag drive and then after the service he showed everyone who stayed slides of some of the families who would be getting the food."
Ellen recalled it vividly. The elderly minister had made an impassioned appeal for each family to fill as many big brown grocery bags with nutritious food as they could. Then on Christmas Eve the bags would be distributed one to a family along with a freshly dressed chicken and a bag of potatoes. After services he had dimmed the lights and shown pictures of the poor areas these food gifts would be delivered to. "I remember, Jeff. I took three bags into town on Monday myself."
Jeff went on. "When I got to bed that night I started thinking of those kids who lived in those tenement houses. I wondered what it would be like to go to bed cold and hungry instead of being all nice and warm here like we are at the farm and not even having enough money to keep Lassie." The collie thrust her head in Jeff's lap and he petted her thoughtfully. "So me and PorkyPorky and Italked it over at lunchtime and we thought we might use our dollars to fill a grocery bag each. Except a dollar didn't seem like a whole lot."
"Then I remembered Mrs. Sunderland over at the crossroads," Porky bragged, his face brightening. He was so slow-moving that it was an event when he thought up an idea. "You know, she runs that little store."
"And Mom," Jeff added, "you go over there sometimes, and Porky's mom, too, to get canned goods because she sells the dented ones that some people won't buy because they think they're bad but they're not and she has them cheaper, too. So we went there after school yesterday, and she had a whole bunch of dented cans, healthy stuff like Dr. Harding told us they needed: condensed milk and Spam and-"
"Vegetables," Porky supplied gloomily.
"Yeah, like that. And we both filled a bag with ninety cents worth of stuff."
"Ninety cents?" Gramps asked. "Thought ye had a dollar."
"We thought the kids in the house should get a present, too, Mr. Miller," Porky explained, "so we bought ten cents worth of candy for the bags, too."
"And you know what, Mom?" Jeff said excitedly. "When Mrs. Sunderland found out what we were doing she put a bag of beans and one of rice in each of our bagsfor free! And some candy canes, too, for the kids. She said it was her contribution to the charity. Wasn't that swell of her, Mom?"
"It was very generous, dearfrom all of you" and she gave him a big hug, and then one to Porky, who actually blushed.
"So today we took 'em into Calverton. And then we got dumb and stayed at the five and dime too long."
"But why didn't you want to tell us, Jeff?" Ellen questioned gently.
"Because of what Dr. Harding said in his sermon about giving. He said a good deed isn't as good as it looks if you brag about it."
He was abruptly hugged again.
"Well, I think you two have learned your lesson about keeping an eye on the clockand the sky," Ellen began.
"I'll say," Porky said with feeling. "Next time I see a...a snowflake, I'm runnin' for home."
Ellen laughed musically. "I don't think you have to be quite that conscientious, Porky. Anyway, I won't mention it to your folks, how about that?"
"That'd be swell, Miz Miller!" the plump boy exclaimed.
"But I do think you two have had a long day and maybe you ought to go to bed now."
"Can't we stay up a little longer, Mom?" Jeff begged. "It's Christmas Eve. Let us listen to the radio a little more."
"All right then."
The musical program had ended, and Ellen went to adjust the dial. A program was just starting. "Oh, here's A Christmas Carol. Let's listen to that."
Jeff planted his right elbow on his leg, supporting his chin as he petted Lassie with his left hand and listened to the old story in absorption. About the time Scrooge began to cry out in repentance to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Gramps let out a low snore. Jeff grinned and looked at his mother.
"I guess Gramps is relaxing with his eyes closed again," Ellen whispered mischievously.
When the story was over, Jeff stretched and yawned. "I guess you're right about us being tired, Mom. C'mon, Porky, let's go to bed."
And there sat Porky, asleep, his mouth open in a round O!
Jeff stepped around his mother and gave him a shake. "Porky, wake up!"
His friend awoke with a jerk and a snort, then exclaimed indignantly, "I was not asleep. Scrooge just said 'Bah humbug!'"
"That was twenty minutes ago," Jeff told him. "Tiny Tim just said 'God bless us everyone' and that's the end. C'mon to bed."
Twenty minutes later they were snug in Jeff's bed together, Porky lying on his right side, Jeff on his left, his arm trailed down to stroke Lassie. The light was out and Ellen had wished them good night, and Jeff was just about to doze off when Porky said sleepily, "You know what, Jeff?"
"I don't care if Woody's going to get that old rod and reel. I bet what we get is just as nice."
"Sure it will," Jeff said sleepily.
There was a pause.
"Besides," Porky added with a yawn, "Woody's a terrible fisherman. I bet we can catch more with our old rods than he'll get on his best day with his steel bearings and super ball fittings."
Jeff laughed. "G'night, Pork. Merry Christmas."
"'Night, Jeff. Merry Christmas."
Very soon the other boy was breathing deeply, asleep, but Jeff still stared, heavy-eyed, at the far wall for a few minutes. Then he ruffled Lassie's fur and whispered to her, "I don't need any old rod and reel anyway, girl. You're the best present anyone ever had. Merry Christmas!"
Lassie licked his hand and then they both fell asleep.
"Christmas Eve" is ©2001 by Linda M. Young
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