A Precious Gift

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe    that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6

The early supply chains in our country were once little more than ancient Native American paths turned into wagon roads. These became the trade routes where the frontiersman and trappers would traverse, hauling their precious cargo to divergent hubs or government forts. Those hunters and traders not only carried on commerce but provided the necessities to which the American family needed to survive. Today, like then, we rely on individuals that take hardship and danger into their daily lives as they continue the tradition of hauling goods and providing services across our country. This story shares a forgotten legacy of a past we cannot afford to forget. In the rush to deliver and provide, let us not forget the purpose behind what we do in this Holiday season. Christmas was not intended to be a time of hustle and bustle, but rather one to seek something greater than ourselves, the one true God – Jesus Christ.

Pause now for a moment and sip on a cup of your favorite hot beverage as you read the tale below. May your heart be blessed by the journey within.

The ominous clouds hung low over the mountains. To most, it was a warning, but to Arden, it was just another obstacle through which he must push. The dust from the Civil War had yet to settle. It was 1871, and there was still great poverty throughout the South.  The roads which were little more than wagon ruts, were filled with weary travelers seeking a better place. At night, the bandits preyed upon the weak. It was a bleak time.

Arden was finally heading home after another grueling trip to livestock trading posts in North Carolina. There, he had taken some of his family’s Quarter horse colts to sell. The Carolina markets paid much more than those on the edge of the frontier, so it was worth the dangerous journey. Besides, Arden Edwards wasn’t just a horse trader; he was the last of a dying breed – a frontiersman.

The farther west he traveled after turning off the Trading Path route toward the mountains, the darker the sky became. Finally, it was as if the heavens couldn’t withhold their bounty any longer. The snow began fluttering down in large goose-down-sized flakes. It was beautiful and foreboding at the same time. A chill ran across the seasoned trapper’s spine. There were many miles to travel before he could rest. Nothing felt right about this. Storm clouds only meant that his arduous journey would become even more difficult. The rugged mountains slowly being blanketed by a cover of whiteness depicted an eerie peace. Arden’s horse Jeb blew breaths of clouds of labor before him as they climbed the Eastern Divide. All around them, the sound was washed from the air as a calm flowed over Arden’s soul. Something made him pause, looking out over the vastness of the earth, slowly turning white. It was as if he was seeing a place to which he had never known, a distant place beyond the clouds. “Will I ever know something greater than this,” he thought to himself as he gritted his teeth against the biting cold. Flashes of the war coursed through his mind, and he winced at the scenes. Angrily, he nudged his spurs against Jeb’s side, and they pressed onward.

Arden was originally from Orange County, not far from what we know today as Chapel-Hill. But now, his home was in a tiny village in the southern Illinois territory, out on the edge of the prairie. It would someday be known as the village of Maunie. After the war, he headed west like so many survivors. He had met a young woman and settled down near her family on the banks of the Wabash River. There, Arden fell in love with a pretty young maiden; her name was Nellie Jane. They married, and he found himself working horses with her family. Before long, her family chose Arden to take the yearlings east for the market. It was only natural, seeing as he had connections back east and was familiar with the open road. So, with trepidation, he headed off in hopes of returning as quickly as possible. But most importantly, his young bride was with child, so there was an even greater urgency to make it back before Christmas.

As horse and rider pushed through the deepening snow, he thought of his mission. His pouch was full of valuable payment for the stock he had sold. These funds would support his and his wife’s family for many months. Yet, Arden knew that carrying such a rich purse meant he was an even greater target. Bandits and thieves were an ever-present danger, but he was no greenhorn to the perils of traveling the Trading Path trail. At one time in his life, he had carried bundles of hides to Raleigh to trade in some of the more affluent markets in his fur trading days.

That was before the war, before Nellie. It was as if an eternity had passed.

Arden’s horse, Jeb, was a hearty breed from good Quarter Horse stock, one that could make such a journey. His gun, a Colt army model .45 caliber, a relic from the war, was snuggled against his side just inside his thick fur coat. It had served him well through many battles, and he knew how to use it if needed. He realized that if he could just make it through the mountains the most challenging part of the journey would behind him.

However, before Arden had cleared the deep passes of the Blueridge, the gentle flakes had become a howling blizzard. Undeterred, he pressed onward. The warrior fought against the cold and hunger, fearing that he might risk freezing or being robbed if he stopped for the night. So, with unprecedented determination, he fought against all of his instincts to stop. Fording across the French Broad, his feet froze to the stirrups, but still, he pushed onward. By the time he reached the Kentucky territory, his body had lost all feeling. The temperatures continued to plummet. Soon the blinding whiteness consumed man and horse.

Once more, the peace, an unearthly calm, passed over his being, one like never before.

There, only five miles from his new home, they found him and his horse, Jeb. They had fallen into a deep ravine. Arden was trapped beneath the weight of steed. His feet were still locked into the stirrups, still frozen in place. Jeb had died – frozen stiff. But buried beneath his horse, somehow barely breathing, Arden was still alive. They later surmised that the body heat of the dying horse sustained him long enough for them to find him. They took Arden home and nursed him back from the edge of death.

When he finally awoke from his ordeal, he was at last able to see his beloved Nellie once more – his journey complete. Arden was there when his son was born a week later. But, as happy as the story may sound, there was still a price to pay.

As was often the case in those days, because of the exposure, Arden came down with pneumonia. The rattle in his lungs that lingered after his son’s birth became a haunting reminder of his near-death experience. Soon, the cough became a fever that sucked the energy from his very being. Slowly, the hardened frontiersman found himself bedridden. Nellie and her family tried all they could to save him, but there was a distance in Arden’s eyes. He no longer had the fire within but instead seemed to be looking at a distant place beyond the walls of their meager cabin. Nellie sat on the edge of the bed, cradling their newborn son in one arm while reading scripture to Arden as he listened with eyes closed.

In her prayers, Nellie begged God to open her beloved’s eyes, to save his soul before it was too late. Time was not on their side.

The family all whispered the inevitable out of reach of Nellie’s hearing. Deep inside, everyone knew it wouldn’t be long.

But there, confined to his bed, Arden began to realize something that before had only been a distant notion. God had been with him all along. Through those dangerous trading trails, through all of the bloody battles, and even through the freezing blizzard He had been there. Arden had never stopped long enough to really seek Him. But now, as Nellie would read the Bible, he found himself yearning to know Christ more than ever before. From one struggle to the next, all through his life he had pushed his body, not thinking of the soul within. He had never slowed down long enough to think about eternity – not until now as he stood on the edge of life and faced it. Here, now in this time that God had allowed, he was given one more chance to realize what he had never sought but had been there all along for his taking.

Then one evening, before the sunset on the distant horizon, Arden knew he had finally found Jesus. Like the last rays of daylight, his life almost gone; he had found Him before the darkness came. The scene from his recent journey returned to his mind. There standing on the precipice in the mountains, he looked out upon vastness of creation. There before him were no more storms, nor more scenes of horrific battles, but a sea of gentle calmness. Arden’s mind could finally see the world with eyes made new, and he silently whispered to himself,  “There was much more to this life.” In Christ’s arms, he could now rest, knowing that his family would be in God’s hands, not his.

Arden continued to fight the sickness in his lungs, but his life had become like water, slipping through his fingers. With each passing day, he faded away a little further.  Nellie could see him struggling with each breath, and her heart panged to watch him suffer, but there was nothing left to do – nothing but to pray for comfort. Then one night, as the full moon crossed over the river, like a spirit coming to beckon him home, he passed away, lying in the arms of his beloved Nellie Jane.

Arden’s journey was finally complete.

They buried Arden Thomas Edwards on Christmas Eve, in the year of our Lord, 1871.

As the last hymn was sung at the graveside, the snow began to fall once more. There in the anguish of death, Nellie felt a warmth, like a comforting arm wrapping around her. The snowflakes fell onto her eyelashes as her tears melted them into the heartache within. Before her, the casket was soon covered with a blanket of white, as if God had come to tuck Arden into bed for his final rest. Yet, she knew he was long departed of this world, and for a moment, realized that she was not alone. Arden was with the Lord, and the Lord was with her.

As the entourage of mourning departed, the snowflakes continued to fall, and silently, as tender as a feather upon the cheek, all the sound was once more washed from the world – and there was peace on earth.

Whatever obstacles you face this Christmas, don’t let them hinder you from seeking the most important thing in this life – God. For without him, we strive for all the wrong things. As Arden found, he had lived his life only trying to make ends meet. It wasn’t until he was forced to face eternity that he realized there had always been so much more, if only he had just taken time to notice.

In all things, no matter what gifts you did or did not receive this Christmas, realize that the gift of life in eternity with God is the most precious gift of all.

Thanks be to God.

This tale was based on a true story, one taken from my maternal family ancestry. While the dates and names were slightly altered, the account of Arden dying after returning from North Carolina to trade horses was true.

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