The peddler looked like an etching from an antique book, a baggy overcoat, brown corduroy with sheep's wool trim, a gold and white striped scarf, wrapped four times around his Hunter's Green flannel shirt with a still enough left to touch his unbuckled goulaches, half-covered with snow. His mittened hand had hold of the bridle of the horse that was pulling the peddler's cart. The peddler and his horse, they both seem to carry the same age in their gait and the grizzle of their faces. They both looked well-weathered but not weary, more toughened by a lifetimes of nights on the road than tattered by the trial of it all. They looked like the life they led.
And as the peddler's whistled his tune, his horse bobbed his head in steady stride, as if his role were to be a metronome for the peddler's song.
I watched this first fellow human come near. Granddad hailed him with his free hand. The peddler slowed and the horse with him. My Grandfather greeted him with lantern light, and after a worried thought, I lifted mine.
The peddler spoke first by ending his song with a wink.
We answered with a nod.
The faithful horse gave a vigorous shake of his head, the way horses do when it seems they are re-fitting the bit in their mouths.
It was the peddler who first continued on with words, "Angus McFarland." He offered his handshake which my Grandfather took. The handshake never came to me.
I was expecting my Grandfather to answer with his name, but instead he asked a question that seemed to have more intention than I knew. "Mr.McFarland, did you notice if the campfires were lit?"
"They were. At least three in the clearing, two more in the highlands just below where the climb begins to the Frenchmen's sawmill. I talked with one ol' fellow, down from the north country, going home from the war. "
My grandfather gave a somewhat puzzled look when he answered, "I thought there might be more."
"There have been fewer in these recent winters. Fewer and fewer fires to chase away the long night; fewer and fewer finding their way home. Maybe, the war has gone on too long."
"Too long, far too long," my Grandfather refrained as I quietly asked, "What war?" Once more i asked, "What war?" And all I got from the peddler and Graddad was a silent look.
"Where are you headed, Angus McFarland?"
"To the farms beyond the abbey."
"Ah yes, they have been waiting for you, some have been waiting for you for a long time." These last words sounded somber to me, and I had no idea why.
The peddler gave a fling of his scarf once more around his neck, leaned forward to give his horse a pull. And with one heavy foot clopping, following came another, a third, a fourth, then many, many more, the peddler and his horse, hauling their wagon of what waiting folks have always needed, moved on. Then his whistle faded into the distance behind us.
"Not far, young lad. Be watching for the campfires, they shall be tended all through this night."
We walked on and the fire in our lanterns kept burning.