Boy, was it snowing now! Little snowflakes had fallen off and on all day, but up until now the roads had been clear. Grandpa’s ranch, where we were going for Thanksgiving, was on the Smithfork River. There are no major roads in that part of the Colorado Rockies, just little two-lane highways.
“Would you look at that cloud!” Dad’s voice startled us in the quiet car.
Connie and I scooted to the middle of the back seat and squinted between my parents. Looming in front of us, completely covering old Saddle Mountain, was a cloud as black as a cellar.
“I don’t think we’d better be on the road when that thing rolls off the mountain,” Dad said almost too quietly. “If I cut across Missouri Flats, we can be at Grandpa’s in thirty or forty minutes and maybe beat that thing.”
“But isn’t that a gravel road?” Mom asked.
“Yes, but I know it well, and it’s all snowpacked just like this.”
“Let’s just hurry, Mac. Only don’t have an accident.”
I alternated watching out the side windows and watching the monster cloud out the front. The wind started blowing, and when it came, it didn’t come all nice and gradual. It came like a wall and jolted the car. Suddenly the back of the car fishtailed, and we were all thrown to the passenger side. Dad immediately slid back under the steering wheel and restarted the motor, but we sank deeper into the soft snow despite all Dad’s efforts.
“Mac?” Mom’s voice was hardly a whisper.
“We’re OK,” Dad replied. “We have our lap robes to help us keep warm, and I don’t think we’re far from the old Dietche place. We ought to be able to go there for help if this doesn’t let up soon.”
“There’s a stockmen’s advisory and travelers’ warning for the mountain regions tonight and tomorrow,” the radio droned a half hour later. “The first major storm of the winter is descending on most of Colorado, with high winds and heavy snow expected—”
Dad snapped off the radio and grinned at us. “OK, this is going to be great!” He sounded exuberant. “This may be our grandest adventure yet.” (Whenever things went wrong, Dad called it an adventure.) “Just up the hill and off to the right is a sturdy barn belonging to Mr. Dietche. It’s nice and tight against the wind and probably has some hay in it. We can stay warm there for a long time. Lilly, hand me the flashlight and matches in the glove compartment, please. I’ll carry them. Connie, I want you to hold my hand with one of yours, and your mother’s with the other. Michael will hold Mother’s other hand; then you all follow me. Whatever you do, don’t let go of anyone’s hand. Do you understand me? Don’t let go for anything!”
We kind of dragged each other through the snow. Even Dad fell a few times. I don’t know how Dad found the barn. I didn’t see it until we were actually inside the half-open double doors on the sheltered side of the structure.
The barn was dark and smelled of musty hay and animals, but the wind didn’t blow through it. We shut the doors, and Dad flicked on his flashlight. Next to me something shuffled, heaved a sigh, and gave a terrible moan. I jumped, Connie screamed, and Dad spun his flashlight into the sober face of a brown and white cow. “Well, it looks like we have company,” he chuckled.
“She scared me,” Connie giggled.
Dad began to explore. Soon he shouted, “Hey, look what I found!” and started fussing with an object on the floor.
It was an old kerosene lantern, and it was almost full of oil. In a few moments a dim but steady light illuminated our surroundings. One entire end of the barn was filled with baled hay. The five stalls were large, clean, and empty, so the cow was apparently a temporary resident also.
“Look out below!” This time Dad’s voice echoed from the dark loft above. A large mound of hay whooshed onto the middle of the floor. Several smaller piles followed irregularly. The hay dust billowed through the barn, and we all started sneezing. Dad scrambled down the wood ladder, saying, “Now I need everyone’s help with the rest of our accommodations.” He was really having fun.
We hauled bales of hay into the middle stall and built a wall of them higher than its wooden ones. We found loose pieces of wood, laid them across the top, then covered them with armloads of hay. We spread more loose hay on the floor. When it was about two feet thick, Mom spread two lap robes on one side of the stall, crawled onto the far side of them, and lay down. “Come on, Connie—you next. When we’re all in, we’ll put the other two robes over us, then pull the rest of the hay on top to keep us warm.”
“This really is an adventure,” I laughed as I crawled in next to my sister. “Come on, Dad.”
“Just a minute. I’ve one more thing to do.”
The doorway darkened as Dad reappeared and backed into our homemade cave, leading the cow. “We don’t want her to get cold, do we?” he asked. “Besides, we need her body heat in here.”
The cow lay at the far side of the stall. Dad closed the stall door, turned the lantern off, lay down, and we all helped get the other lap robes and hay over us. It was real dark, and I could hear the cold wind blasting outside, but I was beginning to feel very warm and cozy.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, …” Mom started to sing.
“But, Mom, it’s not even Thanksgiving,” I protested.
“No, but like Joseph and Mary, we’re travelers, too, Son,” Dad said quietly. “And this is a sort of stable, and we even have a cow. I think that it’s just the right kind of song for us tonight.”
Mom sang it again, then “Silent Night,” then a Spanish carol.
When I awoke, everyone was gone. “Mom! Dad!” I shouted.
“We’re all up here, Michael,” Connie yelled from the loft.
I groped around, trying to get out of the hay, and fell against the warm back of the old cow. She just looked around at me—sort of pleadingly, I thought—and didn’t even moo. I scrambled up the ladder to where my family stood. The loft door was open, and I could see that the snow had drifted so high that it was only a few feet below the loft floor. The wind had stopped, but huge snowflakes continued to fall rapidly.
“I’m hungry,” Connie complained.
Nobody had a satisfactory answer for that, so we just stared at the snow again.
“That bump over there must be our car,” Dad said as he sighted down his arm.
“There’s no way to get there right now, Mac,” Mom said.
“No, I suppose not.”
“There’s nothing to eat there, anyway, except two candy bars in the trunk. I was saving them for the ride home,” Mom added.
Just then the cow gave a long, low bellow.
“That’s it!” Dad cried. “You guys wait here. I have to see if I can find something.”
Mom began to smile, but she wouldn’t tell us what Dad was doing. We could hear him rummaging in the stalls and bins. After a while, he called, “Michael, come here. I need a hand.”
I scrambled down the ladder, feeling very important that Dad needed me. He was holding the cow’s halter with one hand, a bucket with the other.
“Come on, Mike, we’re going to get breakfast. Take this pail and ladle and clean them out with snow. This old girl is hurting. She needs to be milked, so we’ll help her and have some warm, fresh milk as our reward.”
I was sort of dubious, but milk did sound better than candy for breakfast. Besides, Dad had grown up on a farm and knew what he was doing. “OK,” I said, “I’ll get these as clean as I can.”
Soon the milk was pounding into the old bucket. As it rose in the pail, Dad adjusted his grip a little. “Milkers always develop a strong grip,” he said, “but it’s been a long time since I’ve done this.”
I was tired of watching and getting hungrier by the minute. I thought that if Dad would show me how, I could both help him and divert my thoughts from my own stomach. Boy—I learned fast just how strong a farmer has to be! Besides my hands cramping on me, my back began to ache from hunching over to reach the udder. I leaned my head against the cow’s warm flank. She didn’t move, and it helped ease my back.
When we were done, we put the cow into another stall with some more loose hay. Then we all sat on our blankets and bowed our heads while Dad thanked Heavenly Father that we were safe and warm and that we had this milk. He blessed it and also prayed that Grandpa and Grandma wouldn’t worry too much and that we might soon be with them. Then we all took turns drinking milk. Connie said that warm milk sounded yucky, but she drank more than anybody else—and I drank four ladlefuls!
The barn was really neat. I found another bucket, and we melted snow in it for us and the cow. I also found a broken file, a bridle bit, and an old currycomb. I brushed the cow real good late in the afternoon, after Dad and I milked her again. Dad said that you didn’t normally curry cows, but it was all I could think to do for her having given us her milk. Connie felt the same way, so I let her help.
The next morning it had stopped snowing, and Mr. Dietche came on his snowmobile, looking for his cow. He hauled us out on his snowmobile and a sled, and we were at Grandpa’s ranch in no time. Grandma had saved Thanksgiving dinner, so we had it that night, after Dad and I helped Grandpa milk his cows. The turkey and potatoes sure tasted good, but what I’ll always remember is the milk from our Thanksgiving cow.