Mama Pollock had explained the Christmas story to John and, though he was skeptical, the Navajo child had enough sense to keep his opinion to himself.
But when Jessie told him the Christmas legend of the beasts, he wasn’t quite so polite. He looked up from his slate and the sums Mama Pollock had assigned him. “The animals kneel each year in memory of a baby born long ago?” he asked. “Why would they do that?”
Jessie took a break from the endless loops of her penmanship practice. “It’s because the baby Jesus was God.”
“Who told you this story of kneeling animals?”
“Ellen Pascoe. She says her daddy saw it in England when he was young.”
The Indian boy considered this. He liked Ellen Pascoe’s dairy-farmer father, one of the few Etown citizens who nodded politely when they met. “But this is nuevomexico,” he said.
“He says it can happen here, if we have faith.”
John raised an eyebrow, but just then Mama Pollock turned from the fire and asked, “How is the schoolwork going?” and the children returned to their slates.
* * *
Somehow, they managed to slip out of the Pollock cabin on Christmas Eve night without waking Jessie’s parents. John wondered uneasily whether the adults were really asleep or would be waiting when he and Jessie returned, but Jessie’s hand on his sleeve kept him going.
Luckily, there was just enough moonlight to make out the frozen ruts in the Etown streets as they picked their way toward George Clayton’s livery stable. But as they rounded the final corner, men’s voices spilled from the saloon opposite the stable and the children shrank into the shadows. Two men crossed the street, calling, “Clayton! Roust yourself!”
Jessie let out an exasperated sigh and tugged on John’s sleeve. “Come on,” she hissed.
“Mr. Pascoe’s dairy.”
It would be a long cold walk down the hill to the dairy on the outskirts of town, but in the eighteen months he’d known her, John had never heard anyone say “No” to Jessie Pollock. Besides, the Navajo boy liked being outdoors under the stars. He said a silent prayer to Jessie’s god that her parents still slept and moved forward beside her.
The holiday season had been accompanied by a sudden cold snap, so Henry Pascoe and his Irish assistant had barned the dairy animals instead of leaving them out to pasture. Jessie and John slipped through a small side door and stood in the darkness, inhaling the damp slightly-sour aroma as the big white cows shifted in their straw. Once his eyes adjusted, John found a straw bale in the corner and he and Jessie perched on it and peered at the grayish shapes in their stalls.
They’d sat for only a short while before Jessie whispered, “How long until it’s midnight?”
“I can go outside and look at the stars,” John offered.
Jessie gripped his arm. “Don’t leave me. It’s dark.”
She was such a strange mixture of bravery and fear, he thought protectively. “All right,” he said. “Let’s just wait. If the story is true, we’ll know when it’s time, because they’ll all kneel.”
“I guess so,” she said, staring at the stalls. “It’s so dark.”
They settled down to wait, shoulders touching, the warmth of the animals and each other drowsing them into sleep no matter how hard they tried to keep their heavy eyes open.
Suddenly, there was a great metallic screech. John and Jessie roused and looked around wildly. It was still full dark, but lantern light flared upward in the ten-foot high crack between the massive barn doors to their left.
“Well, if ye ain’t been caught nappin’, I’m a golden-haired fairy king!” an Irish voice said as the light constricted and came closer. The man chuckled, then the lantern shifted again as he turned and beckoned toward the door. “Ellen girlie, look what I found ye!”
As Ellen Pascoe slipped through the door, there was a sudden movement in the stalls. The man and children turned. The big animals were shifting, heads swinging toward the lantern and voices as they began to lumber upward.
“They’re bowing,” Jessie said, her voice soft with awe.
John opened his mouth to contradict her, to point out that the beasts had been sleeping and were now roused by the light, but then Ellen moved forward and the Irishman swung the lantern higher. The two nearest cows were kneeling on their front legs, hind legs extended into the air, sleepy faces dazed by the light. The girls looked at each other, eyes wide, and John found himself silenced by their desire to believe.
Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson