By JB Bergstad
On Friday, four days before Christmas last year, I was asked a peculiar question. My youngest great-grandson and I were having a “man to man” talk about past Christmas celebrations. Josh looked up at me, his sweet face clouded with an earnestness only the young possess. His big brown eyes shined with anticipation of a story. “Yeah, but Poppa,” he said. “What was the weirdest Christmas ever?”
I smiled, sat forward and took his soft, freckled cheeks in my callused palms. It seemed kids today craved weird tales more than stories of family and Santa Claus and the birth of Jesus Christ. It seemed they wanted dark as opposed to light. Not because they understood the concept of evil and not because they would welcome a vampire, zombie, werewolf or the king of darkness himself … Satan into their home, but because those were the villains, and sometimes the heroes, of their video games.
“I’m sorry, Josh,” I said, “In all my years on this planet, I’ve never had a weird Christmas, but I did have a miraculous one and I’ll never forget that day. It all began one cold, clear morning in 1961, the 23rd of December it was, one day away from Christmas Eve ….”
I sat between four of the biggest men working the northern Wyoming cattle ranch I now called home. My position on the bench was dictated by grub shack etiquette, the first lesson I learned after hiring on with the Double G crew. The foreman, Lester Wallace, and two senior hands, held down the opposite side of the long plank topped table.
Teller and Nate, two old sourdoughs I’d heard about, but never met, had gone up the mountain a week before I hired on. I’d heard tell those two men were a strange breed. Nary a word passed between them, so went the story. Rumor had it, they couldn’t stand the sight of one another. Yet, they wintered in a line shack, holding a passel a cattle in a pocket canyon until spring thaw. How would they see to the feeding and care of the stock until snow melt? I wondered. It sounded more than mysterious to me. Either those boys were a couple a strange ducks or the story was nonsense … a hoorah for a new hand, put on by the crew.
Anyway, I had my head down, elbows in, putting my share of breakfast away, when Mr. Wallace banged his cup on the table for attention. “Mr. Gravanski asked me to wish y’all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. For those with family nearby, the boss hopes you’ll spend this joyous time with your loved ones.”
Not since I started forking a saddle have I seen six cowboys move so fast. The four on my side jumped up, one splashing coffee on his shirtfront, as the bench dumped over. I’m fast on my feet and came up with them, saving my plate as I did. I kept chewing while I watched those boys scatter to the wind before I could say scat.
I forgot myself and shook my head whilst I set my plate down. After picking up the bench, I sat and snuck a look at Mr. Wallace. He had me hogtied with his eyes. “Well, Jack,” said he, “those fellas appear in a hurry. You short on family close by?”
“I expect I’m the strange pup in the litter,” said I. “Don’t have no family close by or otherwise.”
The foreman chewed on a chunk a ham and forked a scoop of scrambled egg in his cheek for good measure. He stared at his plate until his mouth emptied. “You want to stay here, I’ll expect you to pitch in with whatever comes up. You understand, Jack?”
“Yessir.” I waited for more detail, but Mr. Wallace bent to his plate and finished up with a slurp of scalding coffee the hash-slinger poured in his cup. He stood, stretched and yawned.
“Dang fine vittles, Vittles,” said he to the cook.
The cook nodded his bald head. “Much obliged, Les. Say hello to Sissy and the kids for me and a Merry Christmas to y’all.”
“Same to you, Vittles. Take care of our new man for me.” He hollered the last at the cook’s back as the short, broad man disappeared into the kitchen.
The foreman stared down at me. “Vittles Poister will act as foreman until I get back,” said he. “He’s been with Mr. Gravanski since the first posthole got dug for the Double G. He’ll tell you what needs doing and when.”
Mr. Wallace walked out of the grub shack and left me with my coffee and the last of my eggs. I’d seen a smile twist the corner of the foreman’s mouth as he turned away. I figured I was being set up for a little new man grief from the old hash-slinger. To my surprise, Vittles treated me right reasonable the rest of the day.
Christmas Eve morning, he barked at me for coming late to breakfast, but fed me a fine big meal just the same. The cook, I decided, was a strange duck, too. I belched and walked my utensils to the washtub at the front of the grub shack. Vittles appeared in the kitchen doorway and gave me a look over the top of his spectacles. “By the by, Jack,” said he, the big grin on his puss plain to see through the thin hairs of his beard. “The boss wants to see you, pronto.”
I must a had that “deer in the headlights” look in my eye because he laughed like he’d told the best joke ever and leaned against the doorjamb to keep from falling over.
“About what?” said I when he straightened up and wiped his mouth.
“How the heck would I know?” said he. “See me when you’re done.”
I stood in the foyer waiting for the maid. The house was huge, a three-story affair with curving staircases dividing the north and south wings. An atrium-like dome cast a pale glow over the landings, staircases and foyer. The smell of old leather and polish filled the air of the first floor. It was an open affair with a huge sitting room off to the south. I had no idea what lay hidden behind the staircases to the north, but I didn’t have time to worry about it. A maid showed up and said, “Follow me, please.”
This would be my first meeting with Mr. Gravanski. When the foreman hired me on, he said I’d be lucky to meet the boss before spring roundup. That was okay by me. I was just grateful to have a bunk, period. Most spreads in the territory ran a skeleton crew in winter and wouldn’t hire a new hand no how.
I followed the maid by a large kitchen, dining room and all the way to the end of a long hallway lined with family pictures on both sides. At the end of the hall, she pointed to an open doorway on my left.
Mr. Gravanski sat with his back to me as I entered his office. He swiveled around at the scuffing sound my boots made on the pegged maple floor. The boss looked me over and I snapped to attention not knowing what else to do. Way I saw it, I could get my walking papers.
There wasn’t much going on what with the stock wintered up.
“Jack Zagerro, is it?”
He caught me wool-gathering and I jumped. “Yessir,” said I. My voice cracked and I wanted to cough, but thought better of it.
Mr. Gravanski stood and offered his hand across the large worktable separating us. We shook, he with a firm pressure and released. His hand was every bit as hard-callused as any man who handled rope and leather daily including my-own-self … it surprised me no end.
“Well, Jack. I’m glad to meet you at last,” said he and sat back down. “Have a seat and let’s talk.”
I took a leather chair in front of his table.
Mr. Gravanski folded his hands and studied me over steepled fingers. “Are you a praying, churchgoing man, Jack?”
Uh-oh, I thought. I’m off the range for good and all, but I’ll be danged if I’ll lie to the man. I held my ground. “No sir, Mr. Gravanski, can’t say I am. I ain’t had too many times in my life when praying done me much good.”
The boss dropped back in his chair. It being an old, sort a dilapidated chair, it squealed and squawked and I wondered why a man of means like him kept the old thing around. Looking closer, I saw the leather covering had cracked and peeled in places. I could see stuffing and wood at the edges of the arms. I decided there must be a story there, but I wasn’t about to ask.
“I’m right sad to hear you’ve had bad luck with the Lord, Jack.” He held up his hand and shook his head. “Don’t take me wrong, I don’t hold it against you. I appreciate a man who’ll speak the truth no matter what he thinks I want to hear.”
“Thank you kindly, sir,” said I.
“I’ve got a special job for you, Jack. It’s a simple errand, but it’ll mean a good deal to me if it gets done.”
“I’ll do what I can for you, sir,” said I.
He stood up, waved his hand and I followed him to the far wall. He pulled down a detailed map of the Double G and pointed to a road leading up the slope of the Bighorns.
“Vittles is putting together two insulated containers. I want you to deliver them to Teller and Nate,” said he, pointing out a squiggly line. “Load up the Cherokee with those containers, a case a beer and take this road. Teller and Nate are holed up at Number Two line shack. They’ll be a three-way fork about five miles up the road. Take the middle fork, Number Two is built into the escarpment at the mouth of that pocket canyon. That’s where we hold the high meadow stuff until spring. Any questions, Jack?”
“Pretty straightforward, sir. I’ll head on out.”
The boss offered his hand. “We finished the roads with a fresh grade after the last big rain, so there shouldn’t be problems. When you get back you’re welcome at our Christmas Eve dinner table. Vittles and the rest of our family will join us.”
I blushed like a schoolgirl at the invitation, mumbled a thank you, and hurried out of the office.
I stopped off at the grub shack looking for the keys to the Cherokee. Vittles motioned me into the kitchen. “You’d best take the big Jeep,” said he and handed me a set of keys. “It’s the one with the snow plow on the front.”
“Boss said take the Cherokee,” said I.
“I’m the only boss you need worry about on this range,” said he. “I know what’s what. Take the big Jeep.”
“No offense, Vittles, but what the heck is what?”
“You got five mile to the fork. You got another eight to Number Two. Don’t sound like much, and the road’s been graded, but I’ll tell you this and you can take it for truth. I’ve seen rocks come off that slope and kill a full-growed steer where she stood. Sometimes they’s all over the road, graded or not. Besides which, there’s a storm coming. Sky’s clear, I know, but I’m here to tell you it won’t be for long. You don’t take the plow, you may not make it to Number Two, let alone back. You’re new so I’ll tell you once, do like I say and get back here so’s I can load the containers.”
The sun lay over my left shoulder when I bumped my way up the slope. I saw no rocks, steer-size or smaller. I felt pretty cocky by the time I hit the fork. Cocky until I saw a boulder the size of a Saint Bernard’s doghouse right in the middle of the road. I got out of the Jeep to take stock of my problem. The road, graded wide enough to allow a big wagon or vehicle, had deep drainage ditches on either side. Up the road a hundred yards was a culvert and cattle gate, the gateway to the northeast pasture.
The wind started up and blew like the dickens. To the north I saw big thunderheads brush the peaks of the Bighorns and roll my way. I put my hat in the Jeep and slipped on my heavy coat. I looked again at the sign attached to a stanchion reaching a good two feet above the top of my head. The main road and its three branches had eight-foot stanchions marking the left and right shoulders.
The metal posts marched in a staggered line, left and right, as far as I could see up the slope. The top twelve inches of each was painted bright red. There was one reason for the tall posts, the road boundaries had to be marked. Snow, when it came, drifted deep on the slope.
Best get that boulder up the road and off on the culvert, I thought. It would be easier to push it into the deep trench at the side of the road, but plugging the drainage ditch would cause bigger problems come the spring thaw. I fooled with the hydraulics until I could raise and lower the plow blade with confidence. I eased the Jeep forward and came against the boulder nice and easy. “Okay, Jack,” said I, “push her on up the road.”
Out of nowhere a slashing rain hit like the slap of a riled woman, pelting the windshield with fat, icy drops. Rain was my enemy. Rain meant mud and mud meant the boulder wasn’t going anywhere. I bulled it forward, but the blade hit too hard. The boulder rolled to the side and stopped cold. I heard an awful screech, a pop, and the big Jeep tilted up on its back axle squealing.
“Dang you for a fool, Jack Zagerro,” yelled I.
Backing away, the Jeep’s front axle slammed down, the plow blade cutting through the fresh gravel roadbed. I rolled back about half-a-turn of the wheels. A loud groan brought the big Jeep to a stop. The torrent turned to sleet and the wind gusted pushing it sideways. Ice slammed the side of the Jeep sounding like shotgun pellets. I had to get out and look at the damage. I’d seen a small toolbox in the back, it caught my eye as I loaded the insulated containers. Maybe, I thought, I could remove the blade and use the bumper to push the rock to the side.
I closed my coat to the collar and my gloves came next. I pushed on the door. It opened, but only after a struggle. Sleet hit my face, stinging like a dose of poison oak. The force of the front axle coming down shoved the plow’s blade inward and up. Bolts holding the struts and hydraulics had snapped. Everything twisted and bent up under the front differential.
Cold crept under my coat making me shiver. A cloak of white began to hinder my view of the wreckage. Snow. I squinted up at a dark gray sky. The flakes I saw coming at me were as big as a fifty-cent pieces. I crawled back in the Jeep and turned the key. The engine caught, but a loud click soon turned to a more insistent clunk-clunkity-clunk. A strut or part of the hydraulic system was interfering with the crankshaft’s pulley. The engine gave a shudder and died.
Despite the heat of the engine, snow began to cover the hood of the Jeep. It wouldn’t be long before it spread its blanket over my refuge like a shroud. I shook with cold, unable to run the engine. It wouldn’t be long before the heat of the interior was gone. Would Vittles or Mr. Gravanski wonder about my whereabouts? I tried the CB radio time and again, at last the battery ran down to nothing.
I watched with dread and fascination as the windshield covered over. I closed my eyes and whispered a plea. “I turned away from You, Lord. I’m a sorry man for that mistake. I pray you’ll see me outta this mess. Amen.”
My head dropped on the headrest and I stared at the windshield with its coat of white blowing away and filling back up … a hypnotic sight when coupled with burning cold. I stared until my eyes turned heavy. The last sensation I remember is my shaking … it stopped ….
“C’mon … c’mon … hey … you hear me, boy?” Someone shouted through the fog that clouded my brain. I rocked back and forth like I’d been on a three-day toot. Strong fingers dug into my shoulder. “Wake up … c’mon, sonny.”
“Hey, Nate. Come look what’s back here.” A different voice joined the first and a brightness filtered through my eyelids and into the fog of my brain … I blinked and was blinded by the brilliance shining through the pristine windshield.
The shaking stopped and I thought about going back to sleep, but my legs and arms were electrified as if I’d touched a hot wire. I groaned as the vise squeezing my shoulder vanished.
“Well, dang my hide,” the first voice said. “Will you look at that? Vittles and the boss rigged up a right nice Christmas supper for us.”
Needles of pain speared my eyes as I opened them. Sunlight bouncing off the sparkling snow pack hit me like the flash of an arc welder.
“He’s finally woke up, Teller. Why you suppose he slept in the dang Jeep all night?”
“What the heck’s the matter with you, Nate? Can’t you see this here turkey and all them fixings is piping hot? He just got here, you dumb ox.”
“Well, if that’s the case, Mister Smarty Pants, where’s his track? Where’d he plow? I don’t see nothing but snow packed up to an elephant’s eyeballs.”
Silence. I looked to my left and saw a narrow path shoveled from the door of Number Two to the side of the Jeep. I sat up, swiveled and dropped my feet to the ground. I squinted at a tall, rangy man of seventy or I missed my guess. Beside him, staring at me like I’d dropped my pants, was a stooped, gnarly fella with long arms and hands the size of basketballs.
“You must be Teller and Nate,” said I.
“You mean Nate and Teller,” said the gnarly fella.
“The boy knows what he means,” said the rangy man.
“Before you boys go at each other,” said I, “I’m a new man since October. Name’s Jack Zagerro and I’d appreciate you telling me how the devil I got here.”
“Suppose we get these vittles inside where it’s a little warmer,” said Teller.
“Fine idea,” said Nate, “I was about to say the same thing. By the by, sonny, I don’t think old man Satan had anything to do with getting you here.” He picked up a container and walked up the path.
Teller passed me with the second container in his arms. “You get what’s left, boy.”
I moved to the rear of the Jeep, warmth from the open cargo door bathed my face. The drifted snow lay untouched and layered from the rear bumper of the Jeep as far as my eye could see. I shuddered. The warmth of the cargo’s interior seemed to seep into my bones.
Grabbing the case of beer, I looked up. Above me the sky shimmered a deep, vibrant blue. The air around me nipped at my fingers and nose with icy teeth. I walked to the front of the Jeep and looked at the plow’s blade. It rested hood high, the struts and hydraulics glistening with sparkles of sunlight. They looked brand-spanking new.
The cold began to leach through my boots and the case of beer in my arms grew heavy. I smiled at the luminous expanse of wonder we call the sky and murmured. “Happy birthday, Jesus. I promise I won’t ever forget You again.”
Halfway up the shoveled path, I noticed the beer in my arms was icy cold. I remembered the waves of warmth coming from the interior of the Jeep and wonder helped my smile all but break my jaw.
Approaching the door of Number Two, I heard Teller’s gruff voice. “Ding-bust-it, Nate.
Wash those big mitts a yours before you go fondling that fine turkey.”
“You wash your own hands, yea-hoo. Who voted you boss man of this here shindig?”
“I heard tell you boys don’t speak to one another. You sound like a couple a old married folks to me,” said I.
Nate and Teller stopped stock-still and looked at me with blood in their eye.
I smiled and set the beer on the drainboard. “It’s icy cold,” said I, and popped the top on a can. Cold foam ran over my fingers. I laughed and raised it on high.
“Merry Christmas, boys. No roughhouse today if you’ve a mind. Let’s remember whose birthday we’re about to celebrate.”