The fog had been steadily creeping in all afternoon. Darkness came early. Steady drizzle had been falling for the past several hours. It was the day before Christmas Eve. We had been busy with Christmas tree customers all afternoon, but no one had been here for the past hour, so I closed up for the night. The wreaths and swags were taken off the front of the barn and put inside to keep them dry. I covered the pile of evergreen boughs and collected the saws and clippers and hung them where I’d be able to find them in the morning. I was bushed. We had opened the farm at 8 o’clock that morning and had been very busy all day. Even though our customers cut their own trees from the fields in the back and we had little physically to do all day, being outside in the cold, damp air had tired me out. I shuffled to the mailbox to get the evening paper and through the fog, noticed headlights coming up the road. Our farm is located on a dead-end road and we were the last place before the road ends. Any cars heading this way were either coming to our place or the driver was lost. This is probably Bill and Tammy, I thought. We had invited them for dinner and a Christmas get-together. They were due any minute. The vehicle signaled a turn and a white pick-up truck emerged from the fog and drove into the yard. It was a tree customer.
I suggested to the heavy set young man who stepped out of the pick-up that it might be a little too dark to look for a tree, but he was undeterred. Brandishing a flashlight and a hand saw, he asked me to tell him where the trees were, which I did. He and a young lady and a little girl plunged into the darkness heading for the back lot. I watched as the thin beam from the flashlight turned along the path next to the pond and disappeared.
Having customers arrive after dark with the intention of selecting a Christmas tree by flashlight is not uncommon for us. It happens a couple of times each season. It doesn’t happen often, however, in a steady rain and a heavy fog, which was the case this night. I was concerned that they might become lost, but the happy voices I could hear coming from the back lot put me more at ease. I saw a flash from the flashlight occasionally. If they hadn’t returned in a half-hour or so, I thought, I would go out and rescue them. We’d done that before, also.
I went out to the road, picked up my newspaper and started back toward the barn. I could hear another car coming up the road, then saw headlights penetrating the fog. Another customer coming for a tree or, perhaps, Bill and Tammy. It was the later.
We exchanged happy greetings and stood on the porch looking at the fog. Voices from the back lot pierced the darkness, more strident that joyful this time, and hurried. As we waited the voices came closer. The young man broke the darkness first and ran into the light where we were standing. The lady and little girl were close behind. All of their faces were terror stricken. The lady was wide eyed and the little girl clung to her coat.
“You either have a wildcat or a bear back there,” the out-of-breath young man exclaimed.
“Probably deer,” was my response, “they come up into the orchard every night about this time to eat apples.”
“Deer don’t growl,” retorted the young man. “I’m sure it was a bear.”
Behind me I heard Bill snort and Tammy whisper for him to be quiet.
“I’m not afraid for me, but them,” the young man said, nodding to the lady and little girl and flourishing his flashlight as though it was a weapon. “They can’t run very fast.”
Again a snort from behind me, then Bill said “I’ve been back there a hundred times, and there’s no bears back there, and you couldn’t out-run one anyway.” Tammy tugged at his arm.
“I’m sure it is a bear,” he replied and looked at the lady and little girl for validation. They both nodded.
It then occurred to me that numerous times that day I had heard the neighbor’s Rottweiler pulling at his chain and growling in response to tree customers going to the back lots. I imitated the Rottweiler’s growl to the young man, which brought another snort from behind me. The young man seemed convinced. He looked at the lady and the little girl and said “I’m not afraid, but they can’t run very fast.” He nodded his head in the direction of the lady and the little girl.
“I’m sure you heard the dog,” I assured the group. “Here, take my flashlight and go back and cut your tree.” I handed the lady my flashlight.
Unconvinced totally, the trio reluctantly headed back into the darkness. As they passed behind the barn, I heard the Rottweiler lunge at his chain and growl. The little girl screeched. In less than a minute the trio emerged from the darkness dragging a scrawny Fir tree that had been growing right behind the barn and which had been passed-up by dozens of customers that weekend. The young man thrust a handful of bills into my hand and tossed the tree into the back of the truck. The lady and the little girl jumped into the cab. The young man never took his change. He jumped into the truck, started the engine and sped out of the yard and down the road as though he was being chased by something.
I yelled after them, "Merry Christmas, come see us again next year."
They've not been back. Haven't seen my flashlight since that night either.