The Christmas Visitors
“Easy, Clyde. Back up, fella.” Nate Kanagy stood aside as his Clydesdale came backwards out of the horse trailer, sensing Clyde was every bit as excited as he was on this fine December twenty-third. The horse whickered and shook his massive head, then waited patiently beside his brother’s bay gelding while Bram shut the trailer gates. Nate stepped up to pay the driver who had brought them here from Willow Ridge this morning. “Thanks again, Gregg. And a merry Christmas to you.”
“Merry Christmas to you boys and your family, too,” Gregg replied as he started his van. “Enjoy you new sleigh and courting buggy!”
“Jah, we intend to!” Nate’s brother, Bram, piped up from behind them. “If you can’t have fun drivin’ a new rig, what’s the point of gettin’ one?”
The two of them waved as Gregg headed back onto the county blacktop, hauling their empty trailer behind him. Then Nate gazed around the little town of Cedar Creek, Missouri. From where they stood in the parking lot of Graber’s Custom Carriages, the countryside rolled gently beneath a fresh blanket of snow, dotted with tall white homes, silohs, and barns. Deep green cedar trees followed the creek at the bottom of the hill, where cardinals called to each other. Across the snow-packed blacktop, Treva’s Greenhouse sported a sign that said CLOSED FOR CHRISTMAS, but beside it the Cedar Creek Mercantile bustled with buggies and cars alike. “We’ll get our fill of Aunt Beulah Mae’s homemade goodies tonight—”
“Along with a hefty helping of her nosy questions and Uncle Abe’s looooong stories,” Bram added.
“—but a special occasion like this calls for some serious junk food.”
“Jah, let’s hit the merc.” Bram hitched their two horses to the railing on the side of the carriage shop. “No tellin’ what else we might find there. Looks to be a place that stocks everything under the sun, including stuff you never knew you needed.”
To Nate, Cedar Creek seemed a lot like most Plain communities, in that the businesses were scattered along the roadside, on the farms where their owners lived. Back home in Willow Ridge they didn’t have a carriage maker, so this trip was indeed a treat: their parents had given them their choice of new vehicles on the understanding that he and his younger brother wouldn’t go running the roads in cars like a lot of Amish fellows did during their rumspringa years. At eighteen, Bram had chosen a buggy so he’d be ready for that day when a special girl compelled him to court and marry her.
Nate, however, had a hankering for a sleigh. Nothing else felt so grand on a winter’s day as skimming across the snow-covered hills—and what could be more glorious than such a ride on a moonlit night? After they ate their snack, he couldn’t wait to hitch Clyde to his new rig and take off. He’d been engaged to a special girl last Christmas, only to learn she’d been seeing other fellows, so at twenty, Nate wasn’t out to impress anybody. These days, he was pleasing himself.
When they entered the mercantile, he felt right at home. The scent of bulk grass seed, stored in wooden bins along the wall, filled the warm air and a wide wooden staircase led to an open second level where they sold work boots and clothing. A banner on the railing said ABBY’S STITCH IN TIME, and a young woman—Abby, most likely—smiled down at him from her treadle sewing machine. Mesh bags of oranges and locally grown apples and potatoes were displayed by the check-out counter. Nate exchanged greetings with the gray-bearded fellow who was ringing up an order and then followed Bram toward the aisles of bulk snacks that had been bagged and labeled here in the store.
“Here’s those chocolate coconut haystacks you like,” Bram said, “not to mention trail mix and sweet potato chips and saltwater taffy and—”
But Nate wasn’t listening. Down the aisle a ways, where they sold livestock supplies, a girl was hefting a mineral block into her pull cart. Her auburn hair glimmered beneath her white kapp, and as she straightened to her full height, she caught his gaze. Held it for a few moments. Then she leaned down again.
It seemed only polite to see if she needed help.
As Nate headed her way, he wasn’t surprised to hear the tattoo of Bram’s boots on the plank floor behind him. “How about if I get that for you?” he asked as the redhead wrapped her arms around a fifty-pound sack of horse feed.
“Jah, how many of those do you need?” Bram chimed in. “No sense in strainin’ yourself when we toss this stuff around all the time.”
Nate had always heard that blue eyes could twinkle, but now he was seeing it for himself. The young woman looked from him to his brother as though she hid a secret behind her smile. “Not from around here, are you?”
He blinked. Had he sprouted a second head? Did he sound so very different from the Amish fellows here in Cedar Creek? Or was it Bram’s lovestruck-puppy grin that made her say that? “Just got here from Willow Ridge, truth be told,” he replied. “I’m fetching the sleigh James Graber’s built for me—”
“And he’s got a courtin’ buggy with my name on it,” his younger brother added.
“Well, you couldn’t ask for a better rig, then,” she remarked. “James has even built special carriages for Disney World and the likes of Miss America, you see.”
Nate didn’t know a thing about Miss America, but she surely couldn’t hold a candle to this girl. Her ivory skin glowed, with just a few freckles on the bridge of her nose—tiny ones, that he had to lean closer to see. And then there was the way her eyes widened as she gazed back at him. He caught himself and grabbed the bag of feed she’d been lifting. “So how many of these bags do you need?”
“Four, please. And what’d you say your name was?”
Bram laughed as he, too, hefted a sack of the oats mixture. “Last name’s Kanagy. I’m Bram—the cute one,” he teased, “and Mr. Shy here is my brother Nate. He got burnt by a girl he was engaged to, so now he mostly keeps to his horses.”
Nate closed his eyes against a wave of irritation as he placed a third sack of the rations in her wooden cart. “If you believe everything my kid brother says, well—but you look to be way ahead of him. And your name would be—?”
The redhead looked him over yet again. “Martha. Coblentz.” She pointed to the shelf where the mineral blocks were. “A couple more of those and I’ve got to get on home. Denki ever so much for your help, fellas. Have a gut time with your new rigs.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to invite her for a sleigh ride, yet Nate hesitated. After all, they were only spending the night with their aunt and uncle before returning to Willow Ridge tomorrow, in time to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with their family. As though she suddenly needed to be someplace else, Martha strode down the aisle toward the check-out counter, pulling her sturdy wagon behind her.
“Well, you blew that one,” Bram muttered.
“And you, little brother, have a mouth bigger than your brain,” Nate replied under his breath. “We’ll have to work on that.”
“Jah, Mary?” Martha murmured into her cell phone. She looked behind her as she walked down the road, with the wind whipping at her black coat and bonnet. “You’ve got to come see these two fellas who’re heading over to James’s carriage shop! I just now met them in the mercantile and, well—you can gawk at the both of them all you want, but I’ve already decided to go for Nate.”
“Puh! What makes you think you get first pick?” her twin retorted.
“First come, first served. Be there or be square,” Martha quipped. She loved the way her breath came out in a frosty vapor on this brisk December morning. Truth be told, she was enjoying this day a lot more now that she’d met the two Kanagy boys in the mercantile. “Better get a move on, though, or you might miss them. They’re here to fetch a sleigh and a courting buggy James built for them, and they might head right on home afterwards—unless we give them a gut reason to hang around, you know.”
“Well, I can’t get there any too fast if I’m on the phone with you now, can I?” Click.
Martha tucked her cell into her coat pocket and continued down the snow-covered road as fast as her heavy pull cart would allow. What with her dat and her older brother Owen out working on a house today, the barn chores fell to her, as they often did. It was just as well, because she preferred working outdoors while Mary was happier helping their mamm get ready for today’s meals as well as Christmas dinner. Martha was perfectly capable of placing those heavy sacks of feeds in their covered bins and then setting out the new mineral blocks for the horses, but wasn’t it a fine thing that two gut-looking fellows had come to help her in the mercantile? The boys around Cedar Creek seemed to think she was part of the landscape . . . always there, so mostly invisible. Apparently not worth a second look.
By the time Martha was within sight of the house, here came Mary up the road. Oh, but she had a glint of mischief in her eyes, too! “So what’s in that sack, Sister?”
Mary laughed. “That’s my beeswax, ain’t so?”
“Now don’t go thinking you can have those fellas all to yourself,” Martha protested, playfully blocking her sister’s path. “I was nice enough to tell you about them—”
“And Mamm’s already got her suspicions about me taking out of the house so sudden-like, too. This better be worth my time, Sister!” Mary declared. “After all, it was your dinner—your favorite oatmeal bread and goodies I was baking when you called.”
“Puh! If you don’t think the walk’s worth your while, then I’ll just have some fun with those fellas myself. Not a problem!”
“We’ll see about that, won’t we?”
Martha hurried on down the snowy lane to the barn with her cart, which was harder to pull on the clumpy gravel. No doubt her sister would know a fine opportunity when she saw one, so it was best to put these supplies away and feed the animals in short order. The Kanagy boys didn’t know it yet, but as thanks for helping her they were about to receive a Christmas gift like they hadn’t counted on.