I'm an old man now. The events of my childhood seem as distant to my children and grandchildren as is the Norman Conquest. It's remarkable to all of us, including me, that my memories are still so vivid, as clear as if I were watching them play out on the silver screen.
This ranch will survive me. It comforts me to know that all the hard work put into it over the years, starting with my father, means it will stay in the family after I'm gone. It wasn't always such a sure thing, though. We almost lost it in the first year. The kids think I'm exaggerating when I say this, of course. "Sure, Pa, you walked five miles uphill in a blizzard to school in the morning, and then you walked five miles uphill in another blizzard on the way home."
That's why I'm writing this story now. I want all the family to know, even the family not born yet, what it was like for me, that first season on the ranch.
When my father bought this place in spring, 1882, the buildings were here – mostly. They were standing, but in serious need of repair. Only the cabin was in good shape. That's how Pa was able to afford the purchase price. He didn't make much money working on the railroads, but with a loan from his brother, he bought this ramshackle spread and we all moved in, my parents, grandmother, myself, and two younger sisters. Pa planned to do all the construction and remodeling himself, with me at his side, learning from him as he worked, and doing simple tasks a boy could handle. While he worked, he always told me, "Bricks and mortar, son. We're building ourselves a home and a new life," and I always pointed out that we were working with wood. It was a joke between us. I loved working with him, but he was away more often than not, so I stepped up as man of the house. I was twelve.
Summer in northern Colorado is glorious, but short. We didn't realize how short. In early October, I was out repairing the fences. It was hard, dirty work, but I didn't mind. I was surrounded by women at home, and the cabin felt confining. Mother had migraines – a lot – so my sisters, Elizabeth (we called her Bitsy) and Mary did the women's work, under my grandmother's problematic supervision.
That morning started out beautiful – clear skies, abundant sunshine, soft breezes. It was the best of Colorado. By the time I sat down to eat my lunch, clouds were moving in. I remember shivering. The breeze turned into a chilly wind. I put on my jacket and scarf and went back to work. It was a surprise when the first snowflake landed on my gloved hand. I could hardly believe how quickly the weather changed.
I started packing my tools, preparing for the long walk back to our cabin. As the occasional flurry turned into steady snowfall, I looked up and saw what I thought must be mirages. It couldn't be two men on horseback. But it was. We hardly ever saw anyone way out north of Fort Collins. Were these men Indians? Outlaws? I desperately wished I had my father's shotgun.
They rode up to me. One had dark hair and wore a beat-up black hat with silver lightning bolts. The other was a young-looking man with curly blonde hair under a floppy brown hat with silver conchos.
"Are you alone out here?" The blonde man asked.
I looked around. "I don't see anybody else," I said, my rudeness an attempt to hide my apprehension. I didn't fool him for a second.
"Storm's moving in fast," the dark one said. "You live nearby?" I nodded. "Time for you to head home. You don't want to get caught in a white-out."
I looked around and noticed the snowfall was getting heavier.
"We don't want to caught outdoors either. We need to find somewhere to stay the night." He looked up at the darkening sky. "At least the night. Maybe longer."
"You think your folks will let us shelter in your barn?" the blonde man asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe."
"You got a name?"
He was leaning forward, arms crossed and resting on the pommel of his saddle. Somehow, he didn't look dangerous to me. He looked kind.
"I'm Tom. Tom Hartley. My family owns this spread."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Tom. I'm Joshua Smith," the dark one said. "And that's my partner, Thaddeus Jones. Let's get more acquainted after we're safe and warm indoors. Tie your tool kit to my saddle, and you can climb up and ride with Thaddeus. We'll get to your place faster on horseback."
"I hope you can guide us to your home in this blow," Thaddeus said, as he pulled me up behind him. "This storm's going to be a humdinger."
By the time we reached the cabin about half an hour later, snow fell steadily. There was already at least two inches on the ground. Thaddeus and Joshua dropped me at the cabin door, and I directed them to the barn to settle their horses.
As soon as I got inside, Bitsy and Mary came running up to me, and they hugged me.
"We were worried about you," Bitsy said. "It was so nice out, and then the snow started. We didn't know what to do."
"Where's Ma?" I asked, stamping my feet on the threshold. It was warm inside. Grandma sat in her rocker, knitting. She didn't seem to notice me.
"Laying down. She's got another migraine." Bitsy helped me take off my coat, and she hung it on a peg. "You want something hot to drink?"
I did. I knew Smith and Jones wouldn't be in for a few minutes yet, so I went to tell Ma everything that had happened. When I saw she was sleeping, I decided to let her be, and left without disturbing her.
There was a knock on the door. Bitsy and Mary were startled. Grandma kept knitting.
"Don't worry," I said. "I invited company over." I opened the door, and Joshua and Thaddeus came in, stamping cold feet and sending snow to the floor. They put their saddlebags and bedrolls down. I introduced them to my sisters, who, although totally surprised and more than a little scared, responded politely.
"Is that your grandmother?" Joshua asked. I nodded. "Aren't you going to introduce her?"
"I don't know if it makes a difference if I do or not. She's usually . . . well, Pa says she's senile. She doesn't always remember where she is. Sometimes she doesn't even know us."
"That's no reason to be impolite," Joshua said. He walked over to the rocker and bent over her.
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I'm Joshua Smith." He extended his hand to shake hers. She seemed to wake up then. She put her knitting in her lap and looked up at him, and a big smile crossed her face.
"Matthew!" she said. "It's really you! You never said you were getting leave."
Thaddeus bent down to whisper to me. "Who's Matthew?"
I whispered back. "Her son. He was in the Union Army. He never came back from the war."
Joshua was quick, I'll give him that. "I wanted to surprise you, Ma."
She reached up and stroked his face gently. "You're a good boy, Matthew."
"Why don't you show me what you're making?" He knelt beside her rocker and gave Thaddeus a look I didn't understand.
"Where's your Ma and Pa?" Thaddeus asked me.
"Ma gets migraines." His look was questioning, so I explained. "She gets real bad headaches. She gets sick, and it hurts so much she can't do much of anything except try to sleep. She's sleeping now. Pa went to Fort Collins for work and to get supplies for us. He's supposed to be back any day."
"Any day," Thaddeus repeated. He thought about that for a second, and then he looked over to Joshua, who gave him another look back. It seemed to me that they had a whole conversation without saying a word. Joshua stood up, kissed Grandma's hand, and asked her if she'd like him to make some tea for her. She couldn't stop smiling at him.
"Let's talk for a minute," Thaddeus said. He and Joshua and I moved over to the stove, and the girls followed silently.
"You ever been in a Colorado snowstorm before, Tom?" he asked. I shook my head no, and the girls did the same.
"We're from Indianapolis," Bitsy told him. "We've seen snowstorms before."
"Winter's different here," Joshua said. "In Colorado, you can get feet of snow in one day. And that's what's happening now."
"But it's only October!" Mary protested. "It's too early."
"Early for Indianapolis maybe," Thaddeus said. "Perfect time for the first big blow in Colorado. The good thing is, it'll probably melt next week. Once winter really sets in, you can have twenty feet of snow on the ground till May."
The girls and I were silent while we digested this. I won't lie to you; I was scared. Looking at the girls, I could tell they were scared, too, even though, at this point, we didn't understand the implications. I think Thaddeus, especially, understood what we were feeling, because he was very gentle about explaining it to us.
"It means that we're going to be spending a few days together here, getting to know each other. Your Pa won't be able to get through; he'll be staying in Fort Collins. Do you think you can put up with me and Joshua?"
"If you don't mind snoring, that is," Joshua added. "When Thaddeus snores, the walls shake."
They were both smiling at us. I can't tell you what it was about them, but I trusted them, and I felt safe with them. The girls were crying a little, but they were smiling, too, through their tears.
"Alright, then. We'll talk with your Ma when she's feeling better. Meanwhile, let's check out your supplies and wood. We'll need plenty wood to keep that stove going."
"We got lots of supplies," Mary put in. She was only eight years old, "cute as a button," as my Pa said. "I'll show you." Thaddeus took her hand, and she led him over to what passed for our kitchen area.
"Want to show me the woodpile?" Joshua asked me. "We'll need to bring some more in for the stove. Might as well do it now, before we have to wade through three feet of snow."
He and I put our coats back on and went outside. The wind was howling. Snow seemed to fall sideways. We went around to the back, and we both loaded our arms with wood.
Back inside, he and I organized the logs into a neat pile before taking off our coats. He was smiling, making small talk, but something about his expression worried me. Thaddeus and Mary had made tea, and us men sat down at the table. Mary gave tea to Grandma, who accepted it politely, as if Mary was a stranger. Bitsy took tea into Ma's room.
"You're the man of the house right now, are you?" Thaddeus asked me. I just shrugged. I felt very young in the presence of these two capable men.
"Here's the thing," he said. "Your supplies, your wood pile, are lower than they should be." My feelings must have shown on my face, because he hurried to reassure me. "We're not in trouble now. Joshua and me, we bought plenty food in Laramie before we headed south. There's enough for a couple weeks. Not enough for the whole winter. Not enough stores, definitely not enough wood."
"Pa's coming back with supplies," I protested. "We'll be okay."
"We're good for now," Joshua said. "But we need to have a serious talk with your parents. There's an awful lot of work to be done here, more'n you can imagine. Colorado ain't Indianapolis."
"We'll chop some more wood for you. If the weather breaks, we can hunt a deer, get you some meat that'll last for a while. Can't do much else until this blow passes."
"I can chop the wood," I told him. "I'm not a child."
"No, you're not. That's why you need to stay inside and take care of the womenfolk. Think you can do that?"
Of course, I could. They got dressed to go out again, teasing each other, telling little jokes, and making us all laugh. Even Grandma seemed to understand.
"Be careful, Matthew!" she called, as Joshua went out. "The Rebs are everywhere."
"I will, Ma," he answered. "I got Thaddeus here to watch my back." And they went out.
"Are we safe, Tom?" Bitsy asked me.
"Of course, we are," I said. "They're helping us already, aren't they?"
"What's Ma going to say?"
"I don't know."
Almost as if on cue, Ma emerged, shakily, from her bedroom, followed by Mary. Bitsy jumped up.
"Ma! Are you feeling better?" Something stirred in Grandma. She put her knitting down and stood.
"What is wrong with you, Evelyn?" she asked. "Are you sick again?"
"I was, Mother," Ma said, settling into a chair. "I feel better now. The tea revived me." She frowned. "What's that sound?"
"The wind, Ma. There's a blizzard right now. It's bad out."
"No, it's . . . it sounds like someone chopping wood." Suddenly, she jumped up from her chair. "Is your father here?"
"No, Ma," Bitsy said. "That's Joshua and Thaddeus. They're chopping wood for our stove."
"Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. I was stranded out by the fences in the snow, and they found me and brought me home. Now they're stranded, too, so I said they could stay until after the storm." Yes, I embroidered the story a bit.
"You let strangers into our home? What were you thinking?" Her voice rose. I expected her to be angry, but her voice quivered a bit, and I realized, all of a sudden, she wasn't really angry – she was scared.
"It's alright, Ma. They're real nice."
"How can you say that? You only met these men this afternoon, and you brought them to our home? They could be criminals, or worse."
That shut me up for a second. I couldn't imagine anything worse than criminals.
"What if they are, Ma? It's not like we've got anything worth stealing. We're poor."
She trembled a little and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders.
"What if they have guns? They could be killers."
"Ma. If they wanted to kill us, they could've done it by now. Instead, they're out in a blizzard chopping wood for our stove."
That thought seemed to calm her a bit. "I suppose I don't have any choice in this matter, do I? What will your father think, when he gets here and sees two strange men living with his family?"
"Take a look outside, Ma. Pa won't get here anytime soon. I'm lucky – we're all lucky – those two found me, and they're helping us. We're all stranded here, now."
"We'll see about that." When she went to open the door, a gust of wind slammed it against the wall. Snow blew in, like an unwelcome guest. I had to help her shove the door closed again.
"I wish we never left home," Mary said. We all turned to look at her, and she was standing still, tears running down her sweet face. "I want to go back to Indiana."
Ma was leaning against the door. "Well, we can't. Tom is right; we're stranded here, but at least we're together."
"We aren't together," Mary said. She was crying harder. "Pa's gone."
Grandma got out of her rocker and went over to hug Mary. Sometimes Grandma spent whole days knitting or just staring off into space, but once in a while, she sort of came back to the woman she'd been when I was little. Mary flung her arms around Grandma's neck and sobbed. The rest of us just stood and watched. I think we were all stunned that Grandma had a moment of clarity. You never knew when that would happen.
"Is anyone hungry?" Ma asked. "I know I am."
"Yes, Ma." I said. I wasn't really hungry, but it seemed like the answer she wanted to hear. I didn't know what else to do or say. I didn't feel like the man of the house. I felt useless.
"Come and help me, Bitsy. I think some potato pancakes would be the perfect thing on a day like today." Bitsy and I exchanged a quick glance before she went to help Ma. We both knew there wasn't much in the larder besides potatoes.
Grandma stood up and took Mary's hand. She sat down again, with Mary in her lap, and hummed a comforting tune. Mary only sighed and snuggled into the warmth of Grandma's encircling arms. She soon fell asleep.
About half an hour later when we heard someone kicking at the door, I rushed to open it. Both Joshua and Thaddeus stood there. Each held what seemed like a half cord of wood. Snow blew in around them. They stumbled in, shivering with the cold, coughing and sneezing. Melting snow dripped off their hats and coats. I hurried to close the door behind them.
"I hope that you are Joshua and Thaddeus," Ma said.
"Sorry to make such a mess, Mrs. Hartley," Thaddeus said. "It's bad out there."
My Ma was a proper lady, even when she was confronted by two male strangers in her own home.
"Tom was just telling me about you. Please don't apologize. I can't complain when you're working so hard to help us out."
"Let's get this settled, Thaddeus," Joshua said, "Then we can introduce ourselves properly."
I jumped up to help them.
"That's a lot," I said. "You sure were busy."
"We got one more load to bring in," Joshua said. "Sorry, Mrs. Hartley. There's no way to do this without trailing in snow and dirt." Ma's mouth opened and closed a couple times. I thought, she was all ready to be angry, and they were nothing but polite and considerate.
They were back with another load of wood, both of them staggering under the weight. Bitsy closed the door behind them, and I helped them unload onto our wood pile. They hung their coats and hats on the wall pegs and pulled off their boots, while I added logs to the stove. By the time they sat down at the table with me and Ma, the stove was belching waves of heat, and I could see the trail of snow they'd brought inside was melting and drying up.
"Bitsy, make some tea for our guests," Ma said.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hartley," Joshua said, "but if you don't mind, we've got coffee in our kits. I think we need something real strong to take the chill out."
"Of course, if you prefer," Ma said. "I'm afraid we've run out of coffee."
"We got plenty, ma'am, if you'd like some too."
And so, we sat together – Joshua and Thaddeus, me, and Ma. Grandma gently released Mary from her lap and walked over to join us, placing her hand on Joshua's shoulder.
"Are you going to stay for a while, Matthew?" she asked. Ma's eyes got big. Just like before, Joshua had a quick answer.
"Sure am. Can't go nowhere in this storm."
We sat down together, all the adults and me, and got to know each other, a little. I'd been nervous about how Ma would receive our guests, but they were charming and friendly, and I could tell she was feeling better. They told her how they were travelling from Laramie to Denver, and then on to Texas for the winter, and that they had jobs waiting for them with a rich Texan named McCreedy.
"We like to spend winters down south," Joshua explained. "We've wintered in Wyoming a couple times, and that's why we looked for work in Texas."
Ma explained how my Pa had bought the property, his plans, everything.
"We both wanted a fresh start," she said. "We sold everything we had in Indianapolis, but that still wasn't enough. We had to borrow from my brother to buy this place. And so, here we are, a thousand miles from home. We knew it was a huge risk, but, as the old saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. We took a leap of faith."
"A leap of faith," Thaddeus repeated. "I think I understand what you mean, Mrs. Hartley. Like it says in Corinthians in the Good Book: "For we live by faith, not by sight."
"Yes! I see you're a Christian, Thaddeus."
Even if the dim light, I could see Thaddeus blush. "I can't rightly claim to be, Ma'am. I'm not a churchgoer."
"We don't go to church, out here in the wilds, but we're still Christians," Ma said. "I'm sure it's the same for you."
Thaddeus' blush deepened. Joshua jumped in.
"Even those who take a leap, ma'am, usually look first. Me and Thaddeus got some concerns that you aren't properly prepared for the long Colorado winter. We looked around a bit while you were resting. It'll take weeks to chop enough wood to last you through till May, and that's just the start. You're shy on feed for your horses, not to mention food for the family."
"We have faith, Joshua, even if you don't."
"There's another saying I've heard, not from the Bible, though," Thaddeus said. "God helps those who helps themselves. Far as I understand it, we still got to do the work, even while we rely on God's help."
"Well. I think, once Hiram gets back from his supply trip to Fort Collins, you'll see that we've got what we need to stay in our own home. I'll let you men work it out with my husband, when he gets here. Meantime, the girls and I should start thinking about dinner."
And so, they stayed for dinner. And for breakfast, and supper, for the next week. They spread their bedrolls on the floor to sleep. The girls and I shared the loft, and Ma and Grandma shared the bedroom.
We found different ways to pass the time. We played cards and checkers. We went outside in the cold and made snowmen and had snowball fights. We read stories out loud for each other, although, after Joshua started reading from his book of Edgar Allen Poe, Ma decided that was too scary for children. They helped us with our lessons, especially reading and numbers. We told stories. We sang songs.
Grandma drifted in and out of awareness, like she usually did, but she fixed on Joshua being Matthew, and he was nothing but gentle and kind with her. When she was aware, she helped Ma and my sisters cook and sew, while we men – and yes, I thought of myself as one of the men - chopped wood, tended to the horses, and went hunting for rabbits (successful) and deer (unsuccessful). Thaddeus gave me shooting instruction with his rifle and taught me about hunting and cleaning game. Besides the hunting expeditions, we never travelled further than the barn, but the time they were with us felt like a holiday to me. I loved being with men who seemed to know so much and were so patient with me. They were like the big brothers I'd never had.
Thaddeus was right about the thaw. One week after they arrived, we awoke to warmer temperatures and the steady drip, drip, drip of melting snow and ice. The temperature was almost balmy. Ma started going out, she said to check on things, but really, I knew she was looking for Pa to arrive.
One early morning, I went out with Joshua and Thaddeus to hunt deer. When we returned in the afternoon, with a freshly-killed doe across the back of Joshua's horse, I saw Pa's gelding tied up at the cabin. I leaped off Thaddeus' horse and ran in at top speed.
Pa must have arrived hours earlier, because everyone was so casual, doing daily, normal things. I flung myself on him, and he held me tight, stroking my hair.
When Joshua and Thaddeus came in, I had calmed down. Pa stood up to shake hands with them, and they sat down with my parents. I took a chair, too, as if I were one of the adults, and I was relieved when no one to leave.
Pa told them how grateful he was they'd been around to help out his family, and they told him how grateful they were to be accepted and taken in during the storm. It was an easy, comfortable conversation, as if old friends were meeting after a long separation. After they and my parents had swallowed what seemed like a gallon of coffee, I could tell the conversation was turning serious.
"Evelyn tells me that you don't think we can survive winter here, as we are."
I saw another silent conversation pass between the two. Joshua, who, as I'd learned, had a silver tongue, spoke up.
"Colorado winters aren't just harder and longer thank you think, sir; they're harder and longer than you can imagine, coming from Indiana. You'll be on your own, all alone, for months, with no hope of outside help. Even with the supplies you brought, you can't make it. You'd be safer staying in Fort Collins over the winter and come back here in spring, better prepared. And by spring, I mean late May or early June."
My mother sucked in her breath. Even Pa looked worried, but he still argued.
"We'd need something like a hundred dollars to stay in town that long. That's not possible."
"Fort Collins will be cut off during the winter, too, but at least you wouldn't be alone. The townsfolk know how to survive. And, out here in the West, they'd help you survive, too, if you needed that help."
"I recognize that you two are westerners, and that I'm from the settled east, but really, I can't accept your recommendations," Pa said, "The truth is, we don't have the funds to pay for lodging and food until May. Evelyn and I put every cent we have, and what we could borrow, into this place. We're cleaned out. No, we have to make a go of it here." Pa gave them a reassuring smile. "And we have to, so we will."
I could see Joshua was frustrated and concerned; he thought Pa wasn't taking him seriously. The thing is, Pa was right, and he was wrong. I knew Ma was getting scared, because I was, too. She and I both knew we only got through the past week because two strangers showed up with saddlebags full of canned food, and a willingness to hunt and chop wood in exchange for a roof over their heads. Pa had been safe and sound in Fort Collins, surrounded by people. We'd been isolated. We'd had a taste of what to expect for the winter. But I also knew Pa was right. Money was always the final word in any argument. There was nothing more to be said.
The next day, Joshua and Thaddeus saddled up their horses and bid us a fond farewell. I won't lie. I hated to see them go, but, just like I had to stay, they had to go to Texas to work. I held back my tears, but Bitsy and Mary didn't. As usual, Grandma drifted in and out of awareness. When Joshua and Thaddeus were about to mount their horses, she came outside.
"Matthew!" she cried. "Don't leave!"
Joshua came back to hold her hands and kiss her forehead. "I'll be back for Christmas, Ma. Promise." That seemed to mollify her, but she still cried and clung to his hands. I saw Thaddeus' serious expression reflected on my parents' faces. We all knew it didn't matter if he lied to Grandma; she probably wouldn't remember anyway, and it calmed her in the moment.
"One more thing," Thaddeus said. He took a coffee can from his saddlebags and handed it to my mother. "When you have your coffee in the morning, maybe you'll remember us kindly." Ma hugged the can like a baby. I could see tears glistening in her eyes.
The lump in my throat grew as I watched them ride away. I stood on the porch, watching their outlines get smaller and smaller, as the rest of my family went back indoors. Just before they disappeared over the hill, they both turned back in their saddles and waved at me. And they were gone. I hoped they would come back and see us again, but I was grownup enough to know it wasn't likely.
Two days later, Ma went to spoon out coffee from that can. I saw her make a funny face when the scoop seemed to make a clinking noise.
"Bitsy, get me a bowl, will you?" Ma poured the grounds into the bowl. One by one, she found gold coins – five $20 gold pieces. I can still see the shock in her face. Pa took them from her and held them in his hand, staring at them, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. There was no question of returning the cash to Joshua and Thaddeus; they were long gone, on their way to Texas.
With that money, we were able to spend winter in Fort Collins in a small house. The girls and I went to school. Pa found plenty of work, and he was able to save money. Grandma only sat and stared into space, until, after the New Year, she came down with pneumonia. She died in January.
The following year, we returned, better prepared, and we never left. Pa's brother moved in with us, and, slowly, we made ourselves a life here. Eventually, we opened a dude ranch, catering to wealthy easterners anxious to experience "the real west."
Many times, I stood on the cabin porch and gazed at the distant hill, hoping Smith and Jones would return to see how we were doing, but they never did. Ma and Pa wanted to repay them, somehow, so they decided any guest of the dude ranch named Smith or Jones got one free night. It was the only way we had to honor their memory. Even now, in the middle of this Depression in the country, we'll keep giving that discount. It's a tradition at the Hartley Ranch that I hope will continue long after I'm gone.