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Western Short Story
He closed the doors to the barn and carefully inserted the bar through the loops, wiring it into place to keep the wind from jarring it loose. Reaching up, he found the rope and peered through the snow looking for the lights of the house. Nothing. Well, that’s the reason for the rope he told himself, and began to trudge through the drifts toward the unseen house.
The blizzard had started that morning under a leaden sky with a few harmless looking flakes that failed to fool Charlie Gunderson. After fifteen years, he knew the signs and this was shaping up to be a bad one. He remembered his first blizzard here and how he had lost his way in the one hundred and fifty foot walk between the barn and the house. Only the sound of the screen door slamming in the wind had saved him that time. After that, he put up the rope at the first sign of snow.
Finally, a glow in the murk proved to be the cabin’s kitchen window, from a lantern hanging just inside. He had packed that glass pane and the one in the bedroom all the way from Billings for Jenny, God rest her soul. She had loved to peer out the window as she went about making their meals and keeping house. Charlie had often seen her there, merrily waving to him with the flash of white from her smile visible all the way to the fields. The familiar ache of loneliness tightened across his chest.
He mounted the steps to the porch and paused to look back toward the barn. All he could see was the vast wall of blowing white. The storm was in full fury. He sighed and turned to the door just as something slapped him on the side of his face and clung there. He reached up and pulled it off. For a moment, he simply stared at it without comprehension.
It was a bonnet. A child’s bonnet. No, he thought, it was more of a baby’s bonnet. He turned and stared into the wind and pelting snow. A bonnet. Out here? He had no neighbor within twenty miles. The closest thing to civilization was a trail sometimes used by wagon trains but that too was at least three miles away. He shrugged and entered the cabin.
The wood stove was another concession to Jenny. Her father had one put into their home in Ohio and it had proved far more efficient than a fireplace, so when Charlie was building their cabin, she had insisted on omitting the fireplace in favor of a stove. “Besides,” she had said, “I can cook on it too”. Charlie smiled as he flipped open the door and added some wood to the fire. Jenny had been right about that one too, Their cabin was always the warmest one around.
He dished up some beans and forked a couple of chunks of bacon from the pan and placed it on the table near the bonnet. The bonnet. He stared at it a minute and on impulse, picked it up and smelled it. Unmistakable. The mysterious, clean-sweet smell of a baby’s head. And it smelled fresh as if it had just been removed.
Scowling, he sat and began to eat, glowering now and then at the bonnet. A man would be a fool to go out there tonight. The chances were that the bonnet had just blown off and the child was safe somewhere at home. But what home? There was no home close enough for a bonnet to have arrived here with the fresh smell of a baby! And this was the first wind in a week!
He finished his supper and stared balefully out the window at the monotonous sheets of white. Yes sir, a man would be a damn fool to go out there. He sighed and began to gather up what he might need.
The bonnet had been borne by the wind so Charlie decided his best bet was to keep that wind directly in his face. He figured the most likely source was the distant trail. The passing wagons were mere splotches of white in the distance, but there were no trees in the way so he and Jenny had seen quite a few when she was alive. Now they were rare.
He knew if he kept the tree line on his left and his fence to right, he would be fine for the first mile or so, but after that, the only landmarks would be the boulder he and Jenny had named old face-rock, and the trail itself. He knew the length of his stride and the approximate distance to the trail so he calculated about how many steps he had to take to get there. He had little faith that it would matter. It was a fool’s mission and he knew it. He stepped off the porch and faced into the wind.
He had missed old face-rock and was about to accept that he had also missed the trail when he kicked something with his foot. He bent down and felt a small pile of stones. He knew instantly what they were. Over the years, these stones had been heaped on the side of the trail by wagon train children helping to clear the way.
He got down on his knees and began to feel around. There. A rut. Now which way to go? He had no idea. For a long moment, he stayed there on his knees and then he did the only thing left to him.
“Now Lord, you know I turned away from you when you took Jenny from me, and I’m still not ready to forgive you for that, but I’d like call a truce for the time being. I think one of your babies may be out here needing me, so if it’s all the same to you, I’m asking you to show me the way.”
He stood and faced the wind. It seemed to be blowing harder than ever if that was possible. He waited. Far off to his left, he heard the crash of a tree. Probably an old dead pine finally giving up and falling to Earth at last. He decided to head in that direction.
He periodically checked for the rut with his left foot to keep him on course. He could see no more than a foot or two and the snowfall was increasing. So far, the drifts were small, but that could quickly change. He was searching for the rut when he tripped over something and sprawled flat out. Cussing and swearing, he scrambled to his feet and felt for what had tripped him. It was the tongue of a wagon.
“Hello the wagon. Anybody there?”
“Ma! Ma! There’s somebody out there!” It was the voice of a boy.
“My name’s Charlie Gunderson, “ he yelled over the wind, “I’ve come to see if anybody needs help.”
Charlie walked up the driver’s seat and knocked on it. The canvas on the front of the wagon was pulled aside and the face of a young woman appeared. She was almost blue with cold and shivering violently.
‘Where’s your team? “
“When it got so bad I couldn’t see the trail, I had to stop. I turned them loose to fend for themselves. They won’t go far.“ She smiled at Charlie. “I’ve been praying that the good Lord would send somebody and he did. We’re just about frozen. I have a small stove in the wagon but we’re fresh out of matches and wood.”
“Here.” Charlie lifted the pack off his back and hoisted to the drivers seat. “There’s blankets, food, and warm clothes in there. I‘ll fetch some wood and start a fire”
“We heard a large tree fall right behind us just about an hour ago. I imagine it’s dead, don’t you?”
Charlie looked ruefully to the heavens.
“Well, I guess you answered me Lord, but a falling tree? Well, since we need the wood too, I guess I won’t question it. And I’m ready to start talking to you again.”
He turned back to the wagon. The woman had wrapped herself in one of his blankets.
“My name is Mary Glass, Mister Gunderson. Isn’t it strange that all this happened today of all days?”
“Oh? What day is it?
“Why it’s Christmas day.”
“I didn’t know. I’ll go gather that wood.“
He started to leave and then stopped and looked up at her. “Say, do you have a baby in there?”
“Why yes. My daughter. How did you know?”
“Is this hers?” He pulled the bonnet out of his coat and handed it to her.
Her jaw dropped and she stared at it. She raised her eyes to Charlie, her face drawn and white. “Where did you get this?”
“I have a cabin three or four miles yonder. The blizzard must have carried it up there I reckon. I found it and that’s what brought me here. When the weather clears, we‘ll head up there. For now, I‘ll fire up your stove and we’ll wait it out here.”
She nodded her head, and began to speak quietly.
“My husband died suddenly some fifty miles ago. I had no choice but to come on alone, and this is as far as I got.” She folded and unfolded the bonnet unconsciously in her hands. She turned and stared at Charlie until he began to get uncomfortable.
“You see Mister Gunderson, I buried my husband two weeks ago, and since he loved our baby daughter so much, I left him a gift.”
She lifted her face to him, tears welling in her eyes.
“I buried this bonnet with him.”