The sun warmed Jon’s shoulders as he strolled through the frozen town to Mrs. Wilhelm’s home. Never before had he considered the difference a little sun could make. The wind whipping through his shack the previous night bit every inch of his skin, fulfilling its promise to keep him awake. It sure was different than he was used to. Still, moving to a colder climate had always been his dream. He figured nothing was worse than being raised on a desert ranch only to lay track in the middle of August. Not a thing.
That past summer, he’d finally saved enough money to move and landed in the north where he bought himself a little plot. The dilapidated shack he’d once intended to shore up and improve had become his permanent residence. The farm required too much refining and hoeing to find time to fix what was only partially broke.
Warm breath tickled his fingertips as he blew into his cupped hands. Better than the desert? Yeah, it was better. The frost and snow might numb his toes, but at least he couldn’t feel them.
He shyly tipped his hat at the oncoming passersby.
Aggie, covered in a warm shawl, giggled into her friend’s ear, then smiled at him, a gleam in her eye. “Why, Jon, aren’t you cold? You got nothin’ round your neck or coverin’ your arms.”
“It’s a mite chilly, I guess.”
His eyes followed the girl as she passed. Since their first meeting, he’d hoped to court her. Mrs. Wilhelm and her friends’ willingness to provide him with some additional winter work provided a means—if he could manage it all. Today, the women wanted their Thanksgiving turkeys slaughtered. Each slaughter promised a dollar, and if the women wanted their turkeys plucked and dressed, he’d get another dollar and a half per bird. It meant a long day’s work, but Aggie was worth it.
Entering Mrs. Wilhelm’s yard, Jon blew into his cupped hands again and rubbed at his arms. Perhaps he’d use one of those dollars and buy a coat. He’d never needed one in the desert, but he didn’t live there now. Mrs. Wilhelm swung her door wide, and Jon picked up his feet.
“Jon, those birds are drivin’ me crazy. Opal got herself a tom, and he’s been puffed and struttin’ all night.”
“I’ll hang him first for you, Mrs. Wilhelm. Don’t you worry.”
She patted him hard on the back. “I knew you would. They’s out back. I got one o’ those nice metal barrels out there on the fire heatin’ the water now.”
Jon grinned as he met the widow’s eyes. “How d’you manage that?”
She scowled at him. “I might be old, but that don’t make me useless. I can still haul water and build a fire.”
Jon’s eyes widened as he stared at the barrel of water that was surrounded by plenty of burning wood. “Yes ma’am, you can.” A small path was left for him to use when the time came to dunk the turkeys.
“Well, I’ll let you to it. I know you wanna earn that money, so you can court that pretty Miss Aggie.” She leaned in toward him “You gettin’ close?”
“You haven’t told no one, have you?”
“No,” she scoffed. “I can keep a secret.”
Jon sighed in relief. “I got a ways to go, but every bit helps.”
Once alone, Jon strung the ten turkeys on the wooden frame he’d built the day before. Kneeling down, he thanked God for giving the women turkeys and him work, then asked God for strength to finish the task. That done, he drew his knife.
The turkeys hung with their wings outstretched, not even the tom making noise. The eerie silence from the turkeys sent shivers up Jon’s spine. They never made noise after being strung. He took the tom’s head in his hand and tried to avoid looking at the single eye staring back. “It’ll only hurt a minute.”
The knife pushed raggedly through the neck, and Jon threw the head into the pig’s pen. As he worked the knife quickly through the other nine, the tips of his fingers warmed. Stepping away from the birds, he checked the water, which wasn’t quite boiling and went to wash at the pump.
“I heard you was here.”
A giggle sounded and Jon turned round, feeling a flush of warmth cross his neck—not the kind of warmth he wanted either. “A-Aggie.”
“Jon. Ma sent me to wait for our turkey.”
He nodded. “I just started. I can dunk it first if you tell me which one it is.”
“The one with the light tawny feathers.” She pointed.
“Might take some time.” He stepped to the barrel of water and added a few more pieces of wood. “Water takes a while to boil in the cold.”
She sat in a chair on the back porch and smiled, causing his heart to beat wildly in his chest.
“That’s okay,” she said, “gives us time to chat.”
Jon had spoken to Aggie one other time—a short conversation several months ago. He’d stumbled over his words then, and his tongue felt just as thick now. “You wanna talk while I slaughter turkeys?”
“Looks like the slaughterin’s done.” Her infectious laugh would‘ve brought a smile to his face had he not been so weak-kneed.
“Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?” He asked, then dropped his head and shook it. Had he really asked that?
“I’m here to pick up a turkey, remember?”
“Yeah. I just meant… Do you have o-other family comin’ or is it just you, your ma and pa?”
“Well, that turkey’ll be plenty big for ya’ll.”
“That’ll make my pa happy. He loves turkey. I think he’d eat it all year-round if he could.”
The water started spitting from the barrel and Jon hurried to the turkeys. Holding the feet of the light-tawny bird with one hand and dunking it in the barrel, he brushed at the condensed steam gathering on his forehead with the other. With the scalding done, he walked back toward Aggie.
“Ma wants it plucked and dressed too.”
Standing at a table, Jon pulled at the feathers as quick as he could, but there wasn’t much fast about plucking a turkey.
“You goin’ to the Christmas Ball?”
Aggie’s voice floated to his ears, and he turned, gazing at her a little longer than intended. His hand missed the turkey and grabbed at a pile of already plucked feathers.
She giggled. “Well, are you?”
He shrugged as he looked down at his work. “I hadn’t thought much on it.”
“I have, and I’ve turned down four boys.”
His head twisted in her direction again. “How come?”
“They’s not the one I wanna go with.” She dropped her head, a bright pink coloring the bridge of her nose.
He brushed the feathers onto the ground and examined the turkey. “I’ll have this dressed in a few.”
“Then what will you do?”
The question hung in the air as he drew his knife.
Aggie swayed back and forth, clutching at the sides of her dress. “Pa says I make real good pies. I plan on makin’ one for the ball. What’s your favorite pie, Jon?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess I like pumpkin pretty good.”
Jon shook his hands and pushed the turkey mess away. Turning toward the pump, he almost forgot to take the bird with him. Luckily, he remembered while Aggie’s head was turned. The water ran cold over the plucked bird and his fingers, none of which helped quiet his pounding heart. The Christmas Ball? Did she want him to ask her?
Mrs. Wilhelm clamored down the stairs of the back porch and hurried over to him—a determined look on her face. “Ask her!”
Any warmth in his neck and face drained away. “What?”
“My house is gettin’ cold with that open window. Ask her already.”
Jon scrunched his face together as muddled thoughts ran through his head. Open window? Then he understood. “I don’t have enough money yet.”
“Money,” she grumbled. “You ain’t askin’ her to marry you, just to go to the dance.”
He studied the old woman’s face, unsure she was right. “I can’t do that, Mrs. Wilhelm. I-I…”
“O’ course you can! March up there and say, ‘Miss Aggie, will you accompany me to the Christmas Ball?’ She’ll say yes, and you hand her the turkey.”
He furrowed his brows.
“Go on. There’s brown paper for the bird on the table. Wrap it up good.”
Stumbling toward the porch, his muscles tightened over stiffened joints, and he tripped on a clump of dead field grass. The turkey jumbled into the air with him running to catch it, his clumsy feet barely underneath him. The bird landed in his arms and against his chest. He eyed the ground, all semblance of dignity now gone.
Wrapping the turkey in the brown paper, he handed it to Aggie.
“Thank you.” The smile at the corners of her eyes dropped as she turned to leave.
“W-would you like to go to the ball with me?” His hands tangled together as his foot dug into the frozen dirt. All his dreams hinged on her answer, and the wait dragged on forever.
Jumping toward him, she kissed his cheek. “Yes!”
“Yes? Really, yes?”
She nodded at him, a big smile across her face as she waved goodbye.
Running back to the turkeys, Jon grinned at Mrs. Wilhelm, who added more wood to the fire. He swung the dead tom into the barrel. “Give me all the work you got, Mrs. Wilhelm. I’m goin’ to the ball!”