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(A Short Story from the Old West)
© 2018 Michael Leonard Jewell

PART VI OF VIII

The thoughts of the trail cook were always on the next meal, the next task. Responsible for preparing three large meals every day for over a dozen men, how could it be otherwise? At three o’clock in the morning while he rolled out sourdough for biscuits, thickened a pan of meat drippings for sop, and floured slices of side pork to fry crisp and brown for breakfast, Hans already contemplated the beans he had soaking for stew and the cornbread batter to mix and bake for the next meal in the day.
There was a lot of work to be done before the herd moved out later that morning. The water barrel had to be topped off, and more firewood collected and chopped to be stored in the “possum belly”, a buffalo skin that was stretched out and hung under the wagon like a sling.
Hans would let the weary men who had just come off their watches, sleep as long as he could. Then he must rouse them from their bedrolls and comfortable shelter under the tarpaulin. Though Mr. Swinson had not yet given the order to move out, Hans knew that after the noon meal, he must pack up the chow wagon and drive far ahead of the herd with the scout who would point out their next camp.
Beginning all over again, building a blazing fire, he must have a hot meal and coffee waiting for the men when they got there. To do otherwise would be inexcusable, even unthinkable. Everyone had his particular job and responsibility and need not be told what to do. The drive would not and could not suffer sloth or idleness from even one man.

* * *

Christmas morning had arrived. Swinson and his drovers had put twelve miles behind them yesterday on a trail of mud and slush. He decided to let the cattle rest and fatten up some on the plentiful grass near a wide stream they had found. It being Christmas, the men could certainly use the rest, too.
Juan and a cowboy “volunteered” by the trail boss had set out to retrieve more firewood from a thicket of Osage orange trees and pines they could see in the distance. It had been raining lightly all the night and a coating of ice seemed to cover everything. As the two men approached the spot, they noticed a thick covering of snow that seemed to wrap around the base of the trees like the white fur collar of an ermine coat. Then Juan stopped his mule in its tracks.
“Whoa, hand!” he whispered to his partner. “Do you see what I’m seein’? Are those turkeys huddled together under those trees or am I seein’ things?”

(Part VII coming next week)

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(A Short Story from the Old West)
© 2018 Michael Leonard Jewell

PART V OF VIII

One of the cowboys who had just come in off his watch accompanied Juan to a grove of  trees along the creek below. Soon they returned, each man pulling a large, dead tree branch behind him to be chopped up into fuel.
“Hans,” Juan said, out of breath from sawing up some of the larger logs. “The weather is changin’. I can feel it in the air. Smells like rain!”
Hans stopped his sorting and picking through the sack of dry beans on the back of the wagon and sniffed the air. “You might be right. It’s getting dark towards the North. Well, that’ll be a fine kettle of fish if it does. The one thing we don’t need out here is more ice.”
Early next morning was Christmas Eve Day and it had indeed rained most of the night, covering everything with a crackling layer of ice, including the herd, the men and their horses. The upside was that it had melted a lot of the snow, exposing the precious grass to the cattle.
The sleeping cowboys rose early to breakfast, slipping and sliding as they went out to take their turns riding the herd. The men coming off their watches wearing their rain slickers were cold and miserable. Quickly removing their saddles, they handed their horses over to the young wrangler who returned them to the rotation of the remuda.
Grabbing a hot biscuit or two, and a plate of fried onions and potatoes mixed with sop, they quickly slipped into their bedrolls in the shelter of the chuck wagon’s canvas tarpaulin. Their slumbers, however, would most likely be abbreviated for they were scheduled to move out later that morning.
Mr. Swinson finished his last gulp of black coffee, slinging the bitter dregs out onto the ground before him. Raising his voice so that all could hear, he spoke. “Boys, we’re movin’ out in a couple of hours. This rain has melted a good deal of the snow, so I plan makin’ eight or ten miles or more on the herd before we make our next camp. Cookie will make enough food to take along with you on this day’s ride. You’d better fill your canteens with coffee. Your next hot meal won’t be until we set up camp sometime this evening. That’s all,” he said as he turned to get on his horse to make his own assessment of the herd and to let the other men know of their imminent departure.

(Part VI coming next week)

THE WEAVER FINCH

Poor dusty little weaver finch,
I see you all year long,
You are so very common,
A note, your only song.

You have no claim as native,
You were not called, but sent.
You came only for a visit,
And became an immigrant.

Your ragged nest hangs from my eaves,
Your bread is pauper’s fare,
Your chicks fall helpless to the ground,
And no one seems to care.

I wonder if God has made you,
To show the proud elite?
That His love and care be boundless,
The ground level at His feet.

THE WEAVER FINCH
© 1992, 2018 by Michael Leonard Jewell
To Peeps

 

 

Of course, I’m sure you have all looked out the window! It is mid-morning here and snowing hard; looks like about three or four inches so far. This puts me in mind of something that happened about this time of the year back in the early 1960s—perhaps ’62 or ’63.
We lived on the old Meadowbrook farm and Dad had gotten the car stuck in the deep drifting snow somewhere down the road. He had a fire engine red *1958 Plymouth Suburban (a station wagon if anyone knows what that is anymore) and it was built like a tank. Dad had to dig himself out and the result was severe frostbite in his hands, and he had to be admitted to the hospital (Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor).
On our way there, we stopped at Grandma and Grandpa Jewell’s so they could watch us while Mother drove him to the hospital. Grandma insisted on making Dad some fried eggs and toast because he hadn’t eaten anything (you remember how she was!), but he was in so much pain that his eyes watered with a wince and he wrung his hands and could only feel relief when he went outside in the cold. Large blisters had formed on the backs of his hands. I tried to talk to Dad but Grandpa Jewell told me to leave him alone for now.
Dad spent several days in the hospital and when he came home, his hands were wrapped in gauze. Just imagine going through this in the old days without immediate access to a doctor or painkillers. No snowflakes need apply here!  MLJ

*Trivia: Our 1958 Plymouth, fire engine red, was the same year and color as the car in the Stephan King movie “Christine” (except ours was a wagon instead of a sedan and as far as I know, wasn’t possessed!). MLJ

(A Short Story from the Old West)
© 2018 Michael Leonard Jewell

PART IV OF VIII

Parker, the scout on this drive, riding far up ahead, discovered a large patch of thick grass not covered with much snow. This welcomed find prompted Mr. Swinson, the trail boss, to hold the herd there for a day or so to fatten and rest. This would allow Hans the cook a chance to catch up and give him more time to contrive a suitable Christmas meal from the food stocks left in the chuck wagon.
It was mid-morning and Hans was rolling out his sourdough biscuits for later on in the day. These he would bake in cast iron pots called Dutch ovens that had three “spider” legs on the bottom, designed to keep them straight and steady in the hot coals. These heavy, cumbersome pots were stored in a wooden box called a “boot”, mounted below the pantry at the rear of the chuck wagon.
The biscuit dough was leavened from a crock of sourdough starter. Sometimes called a “mother”, this precious yeasty substance was from an original batch made many years ago. After a quantity of starter was drawn out to leaven the dough for a batch of biscuits, a like amount of flour, water and sugar was “fed” back in and stirred to replenish it. The cook guarded his crock of sourdough starter like a hawk, often keeping it warm near the fire, or tucking it under his arm while he slept at night.
Hans would most always complement his fluffy brown biscuits with a pot of thick “sop”—a strong, tasty gravy made from a roux of fatty meat drippings. As he cooked the meals each day, the flavorful renderings were saved and stored in a metal can with a tight lid. A “gob” of this dark brown gold was later heated in a large pan, mixed with equal parts of flour and made into a thick bubbling gravy by adding water. Salt and pepper was the only seasoning needed.
The quantity and even the quality of food on a drive might change from day to day, but the sop had to be right. Trail cooks were often known and judged by the taste of their sops. Coffee, biscuits, and sop were available to the men regularly to keep them warm, happy, and satisfied.
“Hans!” Swinson barked to his longtime trail cook, rubbing his hands and warming his backside before the glowing coals of the fire. “It would be nice to have somethin’ extra special for the boys on Christmas. They’re kinda down in the mouth because of the weather, thinkin’ about their folks back home and all. Have you given any thoughts to the matter?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered. “I’ve been ponderin’ over that and plan on makin’ a mess of baked beans with salt pork, onions, and the last of our molasses. It’ll be hot, at least, and we can piece out with cornbread. I also thought I’d make some fried dough with sugar and cinnamon for a dessert.”
Swinson was thoughtful. “Not exactly turkey and stuffing is it? I have some dried apples and peaches I picked up in town a while back. They’re in my saddle bags—been savin’ them as a treat for the men. Do you have enough flour and sugar to contrive some kind of pie or cobbler for a dessert? Looks like this would be a good time for it,” the hard, leather-faced trail boss said with a smile.
“I think so, Boss,” Hans replied. “I’ll let you know what I come up with, but if we get close to a town, we better send Juan with the buckboard to restock our supplies. Could you also have one of the boys help him scavenge more firewood? We’ve been going through it pretty fast in this weather.”

(Part V coming next week)

 

Let me walk the Emmaus Road,
Along with Thee—hand in hand,
Let us take our journey home,
Across the burning sand.

Teach me the Truths of Thy coming grace,
From Eden’s bliss to Bethlehem’s star,
Forgive my slowness to believe,
My blind eyes holden to perceive.

Turn in, turn in and stay awhile,
Let not Thy footsteps pass me by,
Forever cause my heart to burn,
And vanish not from my needy side.

And while I yet on earth must dwell,
Until my change doth surely come,
Let me always at moment’s whim,
Walk the Emmaus Road again.

THE EMMAUS ROAD AGAIN
© 2012, 2018 by Michael Leonard Jewell
Luke 24:13-53  KJV

To my wife Rita

(A Short Story from the Old West)
© 2018 Michael Leonard Jewell

PART III OF VIII

All of the men from trail boss on down to the young wrangler who cared for the horses had certainly expected this particular drive to be over by now. The foul weather had not only impeded their journey, but also caused supplies in the chuck wagon to dwindle. Until their travels brought them close to a sizable town, they would be unable to restock the staples of their shrinking pantry, i.e., flour, sugar, beans, corn meal, salt pork and bacon, and most importantly—coffee.
Surrounded by hundreds and even thousands of these rugged cows, one might assume that the most common fare on a cattle drive was beef. It would seem convenient to cut one out of the herd, now and then, to feed the men, but relying on healthy cattle for food was expensive, eating up the profits. The trail boss had to answer to the owners of the cattle and explain the losses to the buyers at the railhead. Besides, cowboys that had to toil day and night for months amongst these oft-times ornery critters did not find their appetites whetted by the prospect of a steady diet of these beasts.
It was part of the normal course of things on a drive to find dead cattle along the way from some mysterious cause, or killed by some wild beast. These would usually be left where they lay to feed the buzzards and coyotes. Only healthy cattle injured by some misadventure, perhaps with broken limbs or unable to keep up would be shot and butchered for food. This was Mr. Swinson’s rule, keeping with the Scriptural admonition from Leviticus:
That which dieth of itself, or is torn with beasts, he shall not eat to defile himself therewith: I am the LORD.
The men would not starve, however, and if unable to shoot enough deer or rabbits along the way to supplement their diminishing food stocks (the men had seen none of these creatures in over a week), they all had eaten mule meat before. Notwithstanding, if “push came to shove”—there was always the *beeves.
* Beeves:   Old English plural word for “beef”; used synonymously for “cattle”.

(Part IV coming next week)