Short story: The Peddler’s Journey
The Peddler’s Journey
“Tell us, Grandpa!”
Chester McCorkendale shared his little brother’s enthusiasm. “Yeah, come on, Grandpa,” he urged, sitting on the threadbare rug before the hearth. “Tell us the story about the Ghostly Peddler!”
Grandpa eyed the boys with ancient eyes and smiled. He took a puff on the brier pipe he clutched in yellowed dentures and let the blue smoke roll from his nostrils like dragon’s breath. “Ah, you boys have heard that old tale every Christmas Eve since you were knee-high to a grasshopper.”
“But we want to hear it again,” David demanded. “It’s like a… you know, whaddaya call it?”
“Tradition,” his big brother told him. “Come on, Grandpa. Nobody tells it like you do.”
Grandpa McCorkendale chuckled and leaned back in his hickory wood rocker, causing it to creak dryly. He glanced around the cramped main room of the cabin. The crackling fire cast a warm, orange glow over the walls papered with newsprint, the stones of the hearth, and the long, dangling stockings that drooped from the mantle; stockings that had been darned by their Ma a half dozen times or so. Yes, this was the place to tell the old story again, and most certainly the time.
Grandpa couldn’t help but string them along a bit further, though. “Are you sure you want ghost stories and not “The Night Before Christmas” or the birth of Jesus? I’ll just go filling your head full of haints and horrors, and you boys’ll never get to sleep tonight.”
“Are you gonna tell it or what?” snapped David, rolling his eyes.
Chester elbowed his brother sharply. He didn’t want David to cross the fine line between childish pestering and disrespecting an elder. That was one thing Grandpa, no matter how patient he was, would not tolerate. There was no need to go fishing for a hide-tanning… especially on Christmas Eve.
Grandpa’s eyes sparkled. “All right. I won’t leave you waiting any longer. Your Ma and Pa’s done gone to bed, and you’d best get nestled beneath the quilts yourself.” He grinned around the stem of his pipe. “Besides, if Ol’ Saint Nick can’t make it this year, `cause of this dadblamed Depression and all, then the Ghostly Peddler might just show up, bearing gifts.”
The very thought of the mountain ghost standing before their hearth sent a delicious chill shivering through their bones. They lay on their bellies on the horsehair rug, their chins planted in their palms, waiting for the storyteller to begin.
Grandpa puffed on his pipe a moment more, staring almost dreamily into the blue haze of tobacco smoke. “They say it happened in the winter of 1869. The cannons that echoed violently down in the valley during the War Betwixt the States had scarcely been silent four years when the old man showed up at the township of Maryville. He was an Irishman, burly and quick with a smile and a joke, his hair and whiskers the color of rusty door hinges. No one knew the feller’s name, just knew that he toted a pack upon his back full of medicines and notions, and some wooden toys he’d whittled with a sharp blade and a steady hand. There was no general store in Maryville at the time, just a way station that doubled as a tavern and inn. The Peddler, as folks called him, showed up that late December, brimming with songs and stories and a belly big enough to hold his share of beer and bourbon when the menfolk of the village were generous enough to buy him a round or two.”
Grandpa paused and eyed his two grandsons. “Now, I ain’t boring you, am I? You’re not feeling too sleepy to go on, are you?”
“No, sir!” the boys chimed in together.
The elderly man nodded and went on. “Well, it was nigh on to Christmas Eve, when the Peddler heard tell of a child up in these Tennessee mountains. The boy had fallen beneath a logging wagon and his leg had been shattered, broken in three places. The old peddler was a man of great heart and he felt compassion for the crippled boy. He also learned that the family was hard-hit with poverty. They were dirt-floor poor with scarcely two nickels to rub together.”
“So what’d he do, Grandpa?” asked David, although he had heard the story many times before.
“Well, what he did was get out his whittling knife and a slab of white oak and he went to work. The crowd at the tavern grew silent as they watched him carve the most skillfully-crafted figure of a running stallion that they ever did seen. It was common knowledge that the lame boy on the mountain was a lover of horses, although he and his family had none to call their own. So the Peddler carved this here toy horse out of wood. Lordy Mercy, they said the little stallion looked so life-like that it might have galloped across the tabletop with oaken hooves, if the old man had possessed the magic to breathe such life into it.
“Well now, the folks there in the tavern tried to talk the Peddler out of it, but he got it in his head that he should take that toy to the crippled child that very night. It had snowed the majority of the day and it was awful cold outside. But no matter how much they argued with him, the Peddler’s heart proved much bigger than his common sense. He bundled up, lifted his pack, and ventured out into the frigid darkness. Having gotten the directions to the boy’s cabin from the barkeep, he began his long, dark journey into the foothills, and then onward toward the lofty peaks of the Appalachians.”
A German clock on the stone mantelpiece chimed the hour of nine. “Are you sure you young’uns ain’t hankering to get to bed? You’ve had a busy day and you look plumb tuckered out.”
“No, sir!” they said, their eyes wide with anticipation. “Please, go on.”
Grandpa drew on his pipe again. “Very well… but here is where the spooky part comes along. You see, that peddler got as far as Gimble’s Gap and was suddenly trapped in the worse snowstorm the mountains had seen in a month of Sundays. The blizzard was so cold and icy, and its wind so blustery, that the Peddler couldn’t see three feet in front of him. But still he had it in his mind to visit the boy that very night and he trudged onward, through the driving flurries and deep drifts. Somewhere along the way, he lost his way. He could have turned back right then and there, and probably made it to the tavern alive. But the Peddler was a stubborn feller and he continued his night’s journey through the icy darkness with that wooden horse clutched in one gloved hand. But the struggle of stepping through the high drifts and the force of the winter wind pushing against him took its toll. It wore him plumb out and slowed him down considerably.”
“But he never got there, did he, Grandpa?” asked Chester, although he already knew the answer.
“No, grandson, he never did. His journey up the mountain was in vain. Some of the men from the tavern grew concerned and the following morning, after the blizzard had subsided, they took off up the mountain, looking for him. On about the afternoon of Christmas Day, they found him, frozen to the trunk of a deadfall. They said he was a gruesome sight to behold! His clothing was icy and as hard as stone. His curly red beard was now snowy white, his rosy face was pale and blue, and even his eyeballs were covered over with frost. The old man was dead, having grown exhausted from his treacherous journey and frozen to death on the trunk of that fallen sycamore.”
Grandpa’s eyes narrowed a bit, a peculiar look crossing his wrinkled face. “However,
there was one strange thing they noticed before they pried his carcass from the log and carried him back down the mountain. The hand that had clutched the wooden horse was empty now… and in the snow, leading away from the dead body of its creator, were the prints of tiny hooves.”
Chester and David shuddered in wondrous fright. “So that was the end of the tale?”
“No, by George!” proclaimed Grandpa. “For, you see, every Christmas Eve, the Ghostly Peddler roams the hills and hollows of these here mountains, in search of that wooden horse. The spirit of that stubborn Irishman still has it in his mind to find that wandering pony and give it to its rightful owner… that crippled boy from long years past. But as he makes that lonesome journey, his benevolence still rings as clear as a church bell. He leaves toys, carved by his ghostly hand, in the stockings of the young’uns of these Tennessee mountains, if only for the chance to warm his frozen bones by their midnight fire.”
The boys grinned at one another. “Do you think the Peddler will leave us something tonight?” asked David hopefully.
Grandpa tamped out the dregs of his pipe, laid it on the arm of his rocking chair, and stood up. His joints popped as he stretched. “I wouldn’t doubt you boys finding a play-pretty in your stockings come daybreak. But he ain’t gonna come with you up and about. Best dress for bed and snuggle beneath those covers. He oughta be roaming the mountains on around midnight, looking for that wooden stallion.”
Both boys hopped up from the floor, eager to get to sleep. “Goodnight, Grandpa,” they said, heading for their parents room and the little bed they shared there.
“Goodnight, boys,” he said, heading for the third room of the cabin and his own bed. “And a very Merry Christmas to you both.”
Before long, they had settled into the comfort of feather mattress, beneath toasty patchwork quilts, and drifted into their separate slumbers. The mountain cabin grew still and quiet. The only sounds to be heard were the crackling of the fire in the hearth and the lonesome howling of a winter wind outside the frosted windowpanes.
A little before midnight, Chester crept from his bed, careful not to rouse his sleeping brother. The story of the Ghostly Peddler was fresh and alive in his mind. Knowing that he really oughtn’t to do it, he left the bedroom and snuck across the main room, past the hearth. He took up sentry behind his grandfather’s high-backed rocker, tucked, unseen, in the shadows just behind.
Chester waited for what seemed to be a very long time. He did not feel the least bit sleepy, though. He crouched there, watching intently, his ears straining for the least little sound. Once or twice, he thought he heard something scamper across the roughly-hewn boards of the plank floor, but knew that it was probably the mouse that had taken up residence there in the cold months prior to Christmas; the rodent who had helped itself to their cornmeal and winter cheese, much to Ma’s displeasure.
Finally, the clock chimed the hour of twelve. Chester sat there in breathless anticipation, listening, watching through the pickets of the old rocking chair. He heard a noise in the cabin… the mouse again, he first thought. But, no, it seemed to originate from something a mite larger than a mouse; more like a muskrat or a chipmunk, perhaps.
And the tiny footfalls were odd, too. They sounded more like small clopping, than the skittering of sharply-nailed animal feet upon the floorboards.
For several minutes, Chester sat there. He listened intently, but could hear nothing else. Then, abruptly and without warning, the cabin door burst open. A gust of icy wind, laden with snowflakes as big as goose feathers, blew inside, causing the flames of the hearth to gutter and snap. Then, with the winter’s draft, appeared a broad form. He stepped into the cabin and, just as suddenly as before, the pine door closed shut.
Chester’s heart thundered in his young chest. There, standing in the center of the main room, was a burly man dressed in icy rags. His broad face was pale blue in color and his hair and beard were covered with frost and jagged icicles. It was the man’s eyes that terrified the boy, though. They looked about the room, the orbs frozen and coated with a thin sheen of ice, the pupils barely visible.
So the old stories were true. It was him at last… the Ghostly Peddler!
Chester watched, transfixed in horror, as the spirit crossed the room. He crouched a bit, as though searching the floor for something. That peculiar sound echoed again… the rat or whatever it was.
“I hear ye now,” rasped the ghost in a coarse whisper. “Ye’d best not try to hide from me, little one. Your shoeprints have led me to this very door.”
Chester wasn’t at all sure who the Ghostly Peddler was talking to, until the old man reached between the woodbox and his mother’s sewing basket and brought something out into the firelight. He watched in utter amazement as the spirit held the tiny creature aloft. It was a small, wooden stallion, bucking and whinnying, as it struggled to escape the icy grasp of the Peddler’s gloved hand.
“Gotcha!” laughed the old man in triumph. “After all these years, I’m at journey’s end.”
Chester watched as the ghost walked to the stone hearth. It was there that an incredible transformation took place. The old peddler stood before the glow of the crackling flames, seeming to drink in its golden warmth. The icy exterior of the apparition slowly melted away, revealing a robust Irishman wearing a worn tweed suitcoat, britches, walking boots, and a brown derby hat. His face grew rosy, his beard its true color of rusty redness, and his eyes sparkled a brilliant hazel green. A grin crossed his ruddy face and he sighed contentedly.
“Tis grand to be amongst the living again,” he said aloud. “If only for a wee time.”
Chester watched as the Peddler set the wooden stallion on the stone mantle. The tiny horse reared defiantly, flashing its small hooves and snorting in frustration. Then it trotted to and fro, down one end of the stone ledge to the other. The old man opened his leather pack and took several wooden toys from inside; a top, building blocks, a couple of soldiers brandishing muskets and calvary swords. He deposited them in the boys’ stockings, nodding to himself in satisfaction.
When he spoke again, he spoke not to himself, but to Chester.
“I know you’re there, lad,” he said. “Peering at me from behind the chair. Come here, will ye? I wish to entrust a very special gift unto your care.”
Curiously, Chester stood up and walked toward the hearth. Strangely enough he was not frightened by the ghostly Irishman who stood before the fire. When he came within six feet of the old man, the Peddler took the horse from the mantle and extended it to him. “See to it that young Johnny receives this present, will ye not? I meant for him to have it very long time ago… but, alas, the journey here was much further than I could have ever imagined.”
“Yes, sir,” muttered Chester. He reached out for the stallion, but it whinnied and snapped at him with its tiny oaken teeth.
“Go on. Take it now. It’ll not harm ye, boy.”
Chester took hold of the squirming animal and, the moment his fingertips touched it, the stallion became no more than a wooden toy again.
“I’m much obliged to ye,” said the Peddler with a courteous tip of his bowler.
Chester stepped back a few feet and watched as the ghost closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and beamed a great smile. “My work here is done,” he said softly. “Dear Father, take me hither to me heavenly home.” Then his burly form grew as bright and brilliant as a white-hot horseshoe in a blacksmith’s forge. The Peddler seemed to dissolve into a thousand fiery cinders, which swirled about the cabin for a frantic moment, then flew up the dark channel of the stone chimney and skyward into the snowy night.
Chester stood there for a moment, dazed. He looked down at his flannel nightshirt and his bare feet and wondered it had only been a dream… that perhaps he had merely been sleep-walking. But then he looked at the stockings filled with toys and the wooden stallion in his hand and he knew for a fact that it had all taken place.
He heard movement behind him and turned to find Grandpa standing there in the doorway of his bedroom. “What’s going on?” asked the elderly man drowsily. “I thought I heard voices.”
Chester smiled, his eyes livid with excitement. “You did,” he replied. He held the wooden horse out to his grandfather. “I was told to give this to you… or, rather, to young Johnny.”
With a trembling hand, Grandpa took the toy, his eyes brimming with youthful wonder. “So he finally made it,” he said. “After all these years.”
Chester watched as John McCorkendale gently cradled the wooden stallion with the reverence of some great and long sought after treasure. Then, limping, the old man returned to the comfort of his bed… and boyish dreams of decades long past.
Copyright © 2009 by Ronald Kelly. All rights reserved.