The wind went shrieking through the bare attic above and singing among
the boxes and barrels in the cellar below. The big show window in front
groaned in a deep bass; the little window in the rear accompanied it in
a high treble. The lamp, with its vague, flickering flame, cast a gloomy
glare over the store, and lighted up the faces of the little group of
men, seated on box, counter, keg and chair, huddled about the great
center of heat.
The Chronic Loafer raised himself from his favorite pile of calicoes and
turned up his coat collar.
“Shet that stove door an’ put on the draught,” he cried. “What’s the uset
“Cold Chrisermas to morrer,” said the Storekeeper, as he banged the door
shut and turned on the draught in obedience to the demand.
“Turn up the lamp,” growled the Miller. “It’s ez dark an’ gloomy ez a
“They ain’t no uset o’ wastin’ ile,” the Storekeeper muttered as he
complied with the second request.
The great egg stove roared right merrily as the flames darted up out of
its heart, until its large body grew red-hot and sent forth genial rays
of heat and light–the veritable sun of the narrow village universe.
“Listen to the wind! Ain’t it howlin’?” said the Loafer.
“Col’est Chrisermas Eve in years,” the Tinsmith responded.
The Loafer pushed himself off the counter onto an empty crate that stood
below him. He leaned forward and almost embraced the stove in his effort
to toast his hands.
“This, I’ve heard tell,” he said, “is the one night in all the year ’hen
the cattle talks jest like men.”
“Some sais it’s Holly E’en,” ventured the Miller.
“No, it ain’t. It’s Chrisermas,” the Loafer replied emphatically. He
leaned back, placed his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat and
glared about the circle in defiance.
The brief silence that followed was broken by the School Teacher.
“Superstition! Mere superstition!”
“That’s what I sais,” cried the Storekeeper. He was leaning over the
counter munching a candy lion. “What ’ud a mule talk about ’hen he only
had a chancet oncet a year?”
A thin, meaning smile crept over the Loafer’s face and he bent forward,
thrusting his long chin in the direction of the venturesome merchant.
“In my time,” he drawled, “I’ve met some mules pullin’ plows that hed
they ben able to talk ’ud ’a’ sayd sensibler things then some ez is
engaged in easier an’ more money-makin’ ockypations.”
The Store was usually loath to accord recognition to the Loafer, but this
was the season of good-will to all, and it lifted up its voice in one
mighty guffaw. Even the Teacher joined in, and the G. A. R. Man slapped
his knee and cried, “Good shot!”
The victim hid his burning face in the recesses of the sugar barrel, and
under pretense of hunting for the scoop finished the candy toy.
“My father-in-law was a superstitious man and always believed in them
fool things,” said the pedagogue. “I never give them any credit myself,
for they say that education is as great an enemy to superstition as light
is to darkness. In other words, learnin’ illumines a man’s mind and
drives out all them black, unholy beliefs that are bred in ignorance.”
He paused to give effect to his words, but the Loafer seized the
opportunity, thus unintentionally offered, to remark, “Then it ’ud seem
like most men’s brains is like cellars. They is allus some hole or corner
in a cellar that ye can’t light lest ye put a special lantern in it, an’
ye hev trouble keepin’ that burnin’.”
“But the brain’s perfectly round,” interposed the Miller, shaking his
The Teacher sighed. “It’s no use talking to you men in figures—-”
“Go on. Let’s hev figgers,” cried the Storekeeper, eagerly.
The pedagogue leaned back on two legs of his chair and pillowed his
head on a cheese box that stood on the counter. After having carefully
extinguished the flame in his cigar, blown out the smoke and placed the
stump in his pocket, he began:
“While I give no credit to the current superstitions, I cherish a
peculiar affection for this old belief that the cattle talk on Christmas
Eve. I feel that to it I owe part of my happiness in life, and I’ve had
a good deal of it, too, in spite of the hardships I had to endure as a
boy. You know my parents died when I was but seventeen year old and left
me practically penniless and a charge on the township. So I was bound
over to Abraham Buttenberger, who had a fine farm up near West Eden. But
for one thing life with him would have gone hard with me, for he was a
crotchety old fellow, a bit stingy, and inclined to get the greatest
possible amount of work out of a husky lad that was gettin’ no pay but
his keep. The one thing I mentioned was Abraham’s dotter Kate. I have
seen many weemen in my day, and I can honestly say that I have looked
on few such pictures as she was when I first knew her. She was sixteen
“I don’t know ’bout that,” the Loafer interrupted. “Did you uns ever see
my Missus ’hen she was sixteen an’—-”
“She was sixteen then,” repeated the Teacher, ignoring the remark; “she
was sixteen and extremely good lookin’. But most of you have seen her
since and it’s no use for me to dwell on that point. As the years went
by I got to set a heap of store by Kate and she set a heap of store by
me. But we kept it to ourselves till we was twenty. Then we agreed to be
married. Our agreement didn’t do any good, for Abraham set his foot down
on the scheme. He wasn’t goin’ to have no hirelin’ of his a-merryin’ his
dotter. I explained to him how his days was drawin’ to an end; how a time
was a-comin’ when the place wouldn’t do him any more good and no more
harm ’ud come to him whether his farm-hand was runnin’ it or not; how his
dotter would need lookin’ after and all that. His answer was to drive me
away with a horse-whip.
“That was in November. For seven weeks I never laid eyes on the girl, for
the old man watched her like a hawk. But he tired of that, and one night
let her go to literary society meetin’ at Kishikoquillas school. I saw
her there and wanted her to elope right on the spot. She said no. It was
too sudden. Besides, she wanted her things, for she knew her father would
keep them just for spite if she run away without them. So we fixed it
up that next night–that was Christmas Eve–she was to meet me at their
barn, and we would take one of the horses and a sleigh and skip.
“Now, as I said, Abraham was a superstitious man and continual readin’
the almanac and perusin’ charms. He believed in that old sayin’ about the
cattle talkin’ on Christmas Eve. Many a night he’d argued the point with
me. I always said if he thot it was true, why didn’t he go listen to it.
He declared he would, but he never did–leastways he put it off to a most
onexpected time. If there was any place the cattle was likely to talk,
I used to tell him, it was right in that big, spooky barn of his; and
if there was any place where one could hear them perfect, it was right
there. The stables was in the basement and the mows was overhead. The hay
was stored above the horses and mules. A hole about ten feet across and
twenty feet deep run from the top of the mow into that particular stable.
I explained to him how he could lay at the top of the hay, put his head
down into the hole and hear everything that passed. But that Christmas
Eve I’d forgot all about our argument. I’d other things to think of.
“I reached the barn at midnight. Kate was there, standin’ by the gate
waitin’. Everything was clear. The old man, she said, had gone to bed
and didn’t have any suspicions. So we got the sleigh ready and went
into the horse stable to harness up. It was clear moonlight outside but
inside it was dark as pitch and fearful ghostly. There were all kinds
of noises–hay rattlin’, rats skippin’ around, chains clinkin’; and
every now and then a hen roostin’ up in the racks would begin to cluck
and scare Kate awful. Grave-yards is bad at night but they ain’t a
circumstance to a big barn.
“I picked out the white John mule, for I knew he was a good traveler, and
gettin’ the harness, I went into his stall and began to fix it on him.
Then I couldn’t find any bridles. I whispered to Kate. She said they was
over in the cow stable, and went to get one. It seemed to me she was gone
an awful long time. I could hear her trampin’ around, but as she didn’t
appear to be havin’ much success I called, not very loud, ‘What’s wrong?’
“‘Nothin’,’ she answered, ‘I’ll have them in a minute.’
“It seemed like I heard a suspicious noise come down the hayhole from the
mow above. I listened, but I didn’t hear any more sounds, so guessed it
was a rat.
“Then I called louder to Kate, for I was mad at Abraham for all the
trouble he’d given us, ‘The old man is a mean customer if there ever was
“She tramped around in the straw for a spell. Then her answer came from
the cow stable, ‘That’s what I say.’
“‘A nice way he treats his own dotter,’ I went on, just talkin’ for
company. ‘He thinks he’ll take his farm with him when he dies. What a
shame in a man of his age!’
“Again I heard a rattle of hay up above and whispered, ‘Ssh!’ But the
girl didn’t catch it and said particularly loud and spiteful, ‘He has
treated me powerful mean.’
“I put my hand to my ear and listened, but all was quiet, so I thinks to
myself, ‘It’s a chicken.’
“‘Don’t you think kickin’ is too good for a man like that, John?’ Kate
“‘Well, I’d like to have it to do,’ I answers. ‘Oh! just you wait till I
get a chance, and if I don’t—-’
“There was an awful scream in the mow–an unearthly scream. A great,
black thing came tumblin’ out of the hayhole into the stable, lettin’ out
fearful groans all the time. I couldn’t see it very plain and didn’t stop
to investigate. I bumped into Kate as she was pilin’ into the kitchen.
We set down a minute to get our breath. Then I put my head out of the
door. For a piece all was quiet. Then a faint call come from the barn.
She thot maybe it was a tramp had fallen down the hayhole. I wanted to go
alone and see, but Kate wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted on goin’ with
me and takin’ a gun and a lantern.
“I opened the stable door, peeped in and said, ‘Who’s there?’
“The answer was a moan and, ‘Is that you, John? Help!’
“There Abraham Buttenberger lay on a little pile of hay at the back of
the stable, writhin’ and moanin’.
“‘I always knew it,’ he groaned. ‘I always told you they talked on
Christmas Eve. But why did you ever get me to try and hear them? See what
you’ve led me to. Look at me layin’ here with a broken leg and see what
you’ve done. It was the white John mule–I know his voice. T’other was
the brindle cow.’
“‘Look out for the mule! Look out!’ he cried, as we carried him out of
the stable and put him on a wheelbarrow.
“That’s the way he took on. When we’d got him into the house I went up
to town for a doctor. I attended him that night. The next day after he’d
had breakfast, he set up in bed and says to me: ‘John, I’ve heard people
laugh about the sayin’ that the cattle talk on Christmas Eve. I’ve heard
you make fun of the idee. But you’d never laugh at it again if you heard
what I did last night; if you’d had a mule heapin’ coals of fire on your
head. And that cow! Oh, it’s awful to have the very animals on the farm
down on you like that.’
“‘What did they say?’ says I.
“‘Say!’ he answers. ‘What didn’t they say? I’ll never have no peace
behind that John mule again.’
“The old man was quiet a spell. Then he says, ‘John, you can have my
dotter, my only dotter.’
“And he begin to moan.
“Missus and I were married at home that Christmas just fifteen years ago.
We never explained it to Abraham. There was no particular use in it. We
couldn’t ’a’ convinced him anyway. Why, do you know he was so set on
makin’ up all around that he insisted that the brindle cow and the white
mule know all about it. The ceremony was performed in the kitchen and
them two knowin’ beasts was hitched to the window so they could look in.
He was bound to appease ’em.”
The Teacher chuckled softly as he finished his narration.
The Storekeeper bit the legs off a candy ostrich. “It do beat all!” he
“I knowd it,” the Loafer cried triumphantly. “I allus knowd it. I thank
you, Teacher, fer backin’ me up with this petickler instance of it. The
cattle do talk on Chrisermas Eve.”