Christmas at Mike Patrick’s place

Sunday, December 23, 2018
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Montana Viewpoint

It was early Christmas morning, around 5 o’clock. I had woken up and looked out the window to see a clear, moonlit night. A good time for a walk, I thought. I was sixteen years oldalmost, my birthday was the next day—and I rose and dressed quietly so as not to wake my parents. I went very slowly down the back stairs from my bedroom, trying to avoid the steps that creaked, found a coat and hat and unlocked the back door. Outside, I discovered that it would be an even better walk than I thought. There was about a foot of snow, which would have been slow walking, but it had crusted overnight and was hard enough to walk on. It was very easy going.

I walked past the barn and corn crib and headed up the lane that led to the back fields and the farm boundary line. The back-most field was about twenty acres, long and narrow. Running all along the north edge of the field was a gully that ran water in the spring. That’s where we threw our trash, and it was full of tin cans, bones, farm machinery parts, old furniture, bedsprings and the like. The gully was a treasure trove for small kids. We would take our rifles and pistols and plink away to our heart’s content. Along one side there were big lilac bushes that hid fox dens. Beyond that gully was a long, very narrow strip of land which was the end of the farm, and that’s where I was headed. It bordered on the Mike Patrick place, neighbors that we never saw and suspected that no one else did, either.

The road to their place took off from the county road about a mile from our front gate, and it was little more than a track through the woods. The woods in that part of Pennsylvania were all hardwoods, and in the winter time everything was stark and serious looking without any greenery to relieve the gray and brown limbs. But I was coming at the Mike Patrick place from the back, where there was no road. A fence marked the boundary. I had been on the Mike Patrick place only once, and that for a very brief time. I was only about twenty feet on their side of the fence when I saw, at a distance, Mrs. Mike Patrick walking towards me with a rifle at port arms. I got the message and left. Quickly.

The Mike Patricks lived in an old, two story stone house, which were common in that country. It was maybe built before 1800, maybe even before the Revolutionary War when their place and ours had been, for a few months, a camp for General Washington’s Continental Army. When we worked the fields we would often find old buttons or other metal objects, and always, lots of arrowheads of all sizes. Those old houses were usually built of stone quarried and dressed on the property. You didn’t want to have to haul those huge stones very far with a sled and team. Heavy as they were they did manage to get the huge stones up above the first story. Their walls were two feet thick.

So, I stood there in the back field looking over the fence towards the Mike Patrick house. It was in a valley in a field and stood about 200 yards away. Beyond it was a wall of dense, gray trees—hickory, oak, maple, and tulip--that separated it from the county road.

It was a stunning sight. A half moon reflected off the snow and made it easy to see. It was quiet, it seemed I was the only animal up and around. And as I looked at the old, unkempt farm house with its mysterious occupants, a small light flashed in a downstairs window. The light was a match, and soon it was a lit kerosene lamp, sitting, I suppose, on a table in front of the window. Then a thin stream of smoke began to come out of the huge chimney, and I wondered if they had a wood cookstove or still cooked their food in the huge, old kitchen fireplace, as my mother had once done.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator, and four years as Chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.