A WINTER’S TAIL
©2010 Kris Tualla
February 1, 1820
The weak winter sun could not gain much ground against clouds so low that they hid the treetops. The world was cold, gray and muffled. Nicolas Hansen cast a wary eye skyward as he and his foreman John worked in the stable.
“It’s coming, John. Let’s get ready,” he said.
The men mucked out the stalls and laid an extra layer of fresh straw. They pulled down bales of hay from the loft and stacked them by the doors. John made certain the sheep were in the keep with plenty of straw and hay.
Four or five snowstorms came through Missouri each winter, dumping several inches of heavy, wet snow. This was shaping up to be a blizzard, with winds that stole the breath and stung the faces of those who braved it.
Addie recognized the signs as well. The housekeeper and Nicolas’s six-year-old son Stefan carried supplies from the root cellar. Nicolas stacked extra wood on the back porch to keep it dry and accessible.
Large flakes drifted out of the sky, blown in crazy paths by the freshening wind. As the day aged, the wind strengthened. By afternoon, it keened through leafless trees, moaned over tops of chimneys, and clattered shutters. The horizontal flurries were so thick, it was impossible to see beyond the front porch. It was dangerous to go outside, even to the privy.
Nicolas, his new wife Sydney, and the children spent their time in the drawing room. The heavy curtains were closed to dampen drafts that seeped through the window casements. Nicolas pulled out his fiddle and passed more than an hour with his playful fiddling. When he stopped, baby Kirstie started to cry.
“Play your fiddle again,” Sydney requested.
Nicolas obliged and Kirstie stopped crying. As long as Nicolas played, his infant daughter was quiet. When he paused, she wailed.
“Well, I’ll be dashed,” he mused. “I have ruined her early.”
Addie baked throughout the day to pass time. John sat in the warm kitchen with his wife and repaired bridles, harnesses and other tack. The mingled smells of yeasty bread, cinnamon, coffee and saddle soap added to the scent of pine sap burning in the fireplaces. The manor smelled like a home.
The storm continued to blow into the night. Nicolas ventured out a few times to shovel snow from the root cellar door, in part to keep it from collapsing under the weight of the snow, and in part to make certain they could get to their food supply. After the supper dishes were washed, Nicolas cleared the snow off the cellar for the last time before bed.
He stomped through the back door in a cloud of cold air and blowing snow. Addie handed him a cup of coffee. He sipped the hot liquid, and used the cup to warm his cold-reddened hands.
“I believe it’s slowing. It’s merely blowing what’s already on the ground.”
Addie looked at Nick. “And what do you suppose that was?”
The scratch came again, barely discernable over the raucous storm. Nicolas crossed to the door. “Whatever it is, it wants to be in here, not out there. And I truthfully cannot blame it a bit!”
He palmed his dirk and opened the back door. A large, hairy, four-legged creature stumbled in and collapsed on the floor.
Addie eased forward. “Is that supposed to be a dog? Or a wolf?”
Nicolas eyed the beast. “It’s no wolf. So I reckon it’s a dog. And a nearly dead one at that.”
Thinking to ease its final hour, Nicolas picked up the enormous mass of hair and ice and carried it to the drawing room. He laid it on the floor with its back to the fire. The animal licked his hand.
The dog had large paws and a square head. His short, thick coat was buckskin, darkening around his muzzle and feet. He would stand about eight hands at the shoulder. He was so big Nicolas measured him in horse terms without realizing.
“Pappa what’s that?” Six-year-old Stefan’s eyes were round as dinner plates. “Can we keep it?”
Nicolas knelt beside the creature and began to pull impacted ice from between its toes. “His pads are black but I cannot discern if it’s frostbite. If so, he’ll likely not survive.”
“He is very thin,” Sydney ventured over Nicolas’s shoulder. “I can see his ribs even through that mess of fur.”
“He has missed a few meals, that’s for certain. I wonder where he came from?”
“Pappa, can you make him better?” Stefan’s plea was punctuated by his grasp on Nicolas’s shirt. “Mamma can help.”
“We shall try, Stefan. But he may be too sick to save.”
Stefan knelt next to Nicolas. “Can I do it, too?”
“Yes, son. See the ice between his toes? Get it out as gently as you can.”
“I’ll get wool fat and binding for his paws,” Addie volunteered. “Don’t know if he’ll keep it on, but we can try.” She headed to the kitchen for the supplies.
Nicolas slathered the thick grease on each paw and wrapped them with the cloth strips.
“What can we feed him, Pappa?”
“He’s too weak to eat heavy.” Nicolas pondered what might do. The dog began to whimper and wave his paws. But when he tried to stand, he yelped and fell to the floor. “His paws hurt. Addie, what can we give him for pain?”
“Willowbark tea is what I’d give a person,” Addie answered.
“Can we brew some? Perchance mix it in some gravy from supper?” Sydney suggested.
“Well it certainly won’t hurt him,” Nicolas agreed.
Stefan petted the beast and that seemed to calm him, though he still waved his paws and whined. The smell of wet fur in front of the fire was so overpowering, Nicolas went to fetch some rags. He gave Stefan the task of rubbing the animal dry.
The women returned to the drawing room with the gravy and willowbark mixture. Nicolas sat on the floor, cradled the dog’s head and held his jaws open. He stroked the beast’s throat to make him swallow as Sydney dribbled the warm liquid into his mouth.
“Let him rest now,” Nicolas said and rested the dog's huge head on the floor. Stefan laid on the floor beside the ragged animal, whose tail lifted and dropped in a weak wag.
“What should we name him?” Stefan stroked the dog’s ear.
“He’ll tell us his name in due time,” Nicolas said. “We shall wait for him.” Besides, the beast might yet die.
“Can I sleep down here tonight, Pappa? So I can keep him company?”
Nicolas considered the animal. He was not a threat in his current condition and Stefan’s presence seemed to comfort him. If he did die, his final hours would be eased. All of God’s creatures deserved that much.
“Alright, then. Go get your blanket and pillow. You may sleep on the settle.”
“Thank you, Pappa!” Stefan ran upstairs to retrieve his bedding.
“You are a good father, Nicolas.” Sydney opened her dress for their fussing daughter.
Nicolas watched her put their hungry babe to her breast. “You have made me so.”
Stefan reappeared and Sydney made room for her stepson on the settle. She patted his leg as he snuggled under his blanket. When Kirstie finished nursing, Nicolas turned down the oil lamps. The only light in the room came from the fireplace.
“Will you be alright down here?” he asked.
“Remember that Addie and John are just down the hall.”
“I know.” Stefan’s eyes drooped.
Nicolas and Sydney kissed their son goodnight and went upstairs.
The sun shone on a recreated landscape. Snow and drifts, some high as eight feet, blinded as they sparkled with the pristine purity that only an unspoiled snowfall can own. Bare tree branches glistened with their crystal coating.
Nicolas discovered Stefan on the drawing room floor, asleep beside the beast, with his blanket tucked over them both. The dog had survived the night.
When the dog caught sight of Nicolas, he wiggled out from the blanket and lumbered to his feet. He stood with his head down, as if its weight was too much to hold. Ignoring the bandages on his paws, he padded forward in increments, his tail swinging back and forth like a slow metronome.
Nicolas knelt to pat his head and look into his eyes. “There’s a good boy. Are you going to live then?” The dog licked his hand.
“He’s alive, Pappa.” Stefan stretched beneath his cover.
“He is indeed, son. I believe you sleeping with him helped in that.”
Stefan nodded. “He likes me.”
Nicolas did not want the dog to walk on his damaged pads, so he scooped him up and carried him to the kitchen. Addie fixed up a bowl of oatmeal and raw eggs and he gulped it down. Then Nicolas took him out to the porch to relieve himself, and then carried him back to the drawing room.
Stefan was happily allowed to eat his breakfast in that room.
“Such a fuss over a beast!” Addie clucked, smiling.
Nicolas and Stefan were in the drawing room when Sydney came down with Kirstie. Nicolas laid Kirstie in a basket with a shiny bauble tied to the handle. She kicked and waved as she concentrated her gaze on the pretty thing. The dog turned to look at the new human. He struggled to his feet and plodded to the basket. Sydney jumped to her feet.
“No!” she yelped and pushed past Nicolas to rescue her daughter. Nicolas grabbed her arm and stopped her.
The beast turned to look at Sydney with soulful eyes and moved his tail in a long, slow wave. His huge head lowered to the baby’s and he sniffed her hair. His tongue flicked out, and he sniffed again. Then he circled and dropped to the floor next to the basket, curled with his back to it, and sighed deeply.
“I believe we know his name, now,” Nicolas announced. “Beskytter is Norse for ‘guardian’ so I believe we should call him Beskytt.”
“I like that Pappa!” Stefan enthused. “Here, Beskytt! Come here, boy!” The dog lifted his head and wagged his tail. But he looked over his shoulder at Kirstie and stayed put.
“His feet still hurt, Stefan,” Sydney reminded him. “He will love you if you bring him treats and pet him while he is recuperating.”
Stefan slid close and stroked Beskytt’s ears.
“When he is better, perchance he can walk you to school,” Nicolas suggested.
“You hear that Beskytt? You’re gonna take me to school!”
Beskytt wagged his tail and sighed again. His eyes closed and he basked in the loving attention of his new boy.