By Ron Ciancutti
No one thought there would be an October frost that early for what had been a warm end of September, but it came just the same. Kerry Daniels had awoken late to the damp smell of dewy grass from melted frost and thanked the Lord that he worked for a man who valued rest enough that he gave every other weekend a “late start” designation and let the bunkhouse “sleep in.”
He rousted about and dressed, eventually prodding the others to “shake it awake.” Mrs. Bronson, the owner’s wife, would rustle up a big breakfast on Saturdays, and from the smell of bacon drifting out of the house, today would be no exception.
John-Paul, the owner’s youngest boy, had been watching Kerry’s approach from the window and met him at the door. “Mornin’, Kerry,” the young Bronson said, trying to make his voice sound deep and authoritative. Kerry knew of the boy’s admiration and always played the part for the kid. Though he was an “A” student with a lot of promise, the rancher stamp was clearly upon this 11-year old and his future was clear. “How do, Bossman?” Kerry returned with a playful punch to John-Paul’s shoulder.
A Storm Is Brewing
The men assembled at the table, four on each side, John-Paul next to Kerry and his brother, Earl, across from him. Old man Bronson sat at the head of the table with his wife at the other end.
The table hosted monstrous stacks of buttermilk cakes, biscuits, bacon, and ham. The cauldron of scrambled eggs sat there steaming, and all of the men were eyeing the bowl of sausage gravy. Kerry went to reach for the serving spoon when Mrs. Bronson sang out, “Kerry, please lead us in prayer.”
He froze. He didn’t know much “preachin’” and he certainly hadn’t remembered any prayers. “Ma, is it all right if I help Kerry?” John-Paul asked. “Yes, you may,” she said, hiding a smile.
“What’s something you’re grateful for, Kerry?”
“My warm bed, this food, my friends here.”
“So give thanks for all that. You just kinda talk to God, direct-like.”
Kerry did as he was told, a little embarrassed to be taking direction from a kid, but John-Paul was special, and Kerry couldn’t ever get mad or be put out by him.
He concluded his prayer with the standard “Amen” he’d been taught as a boy and winked a “thank you” to John-Paul, who seemed thrilled with the acknowledgement.
“That was just fine, Mr. Daniels,” Mrs. Bronson said. Bronson glanced at his wife with a disapproving frown. These men were not her sons for God’s sake. She acted like she hadn’t seen his stare and looked away immediately.
The rest of the men dug into their plates, and Mrs. Bronson rose to start a second pot of coffee as the first had already been consumed. For a young, hearty group of men, there wasn’t much conversation at the table. There had been a confrontation the night before as the men were enjoying their nightly poker game. Words had been exchanged and insults were abundant, and it almost turned to fists. Although the argument started between two of them, it soon turned to all eight, each of them chiming in with insults about other little annoyances that had been building up.
Kerry, who was the foreman, thought this would be as good a time as any to begin assigning duties for the day. “Cole, you take John-Paul with you today. There’s a bit of fence that needs mendin’ on the Northern line up past the creek.”
“Yessir,” Cole returned while nodding at John-Paul. “I saw it myself last week. I know where you are talkin’ ‘bout.” Cole returned to his plate, smiling. He liked working with the kid. He was such a positive, sure-footed youngin’. It would make for a good day.
“Donato, David, Martens, there’s a pile of driftwood and tree trunks came down by the mouth of the river, interfering with things, damming up the flow. Hitch a couple horses to the wagon and then rope ‘em to that log jam. Once things get loosened up and flowing, fill the wagon with them driftwood logs and haul them back. Dump the load out back but not too close to the barn. If there’s enough to haul, get two loads.” The trio nodded.
A Rumble Of Thunder
The assignments continued until all of the men had their orders. “Earl, wherever you feel comfortable, slide on in. There’s manpower needed at every one of them jobs.” Earl nodded. Kerry always felt funny giving Earl any direction. The boss had a strained relationship with the kid, so he always just nodded and cooperated, but he clearly had things in his head that weren’t settled, and Bronson seemed to know that but always fell short of bringing them up, or worse yet, letting the boy pour it out. Bronson seemed to appreciate that Kerry saw it, knew it, but never brought it up.
Kerry looked around the table as the buzz of the conversation droned on. He quietly shook his head. Mr. and Mrs. Bronson were clearly in a bad place as a couple. The men were not getting along at all. Earl was hanging his head lower every day, and John-Paul, just bursting with ranch-talent but being told by his pa to “reach higher,” had a love of the land few could understand.
“One more thing,” Kerry said. “I want everyone back in just after sundown.” John-Paul looked up, puzzled. “How come, Kerry?” Daniels looked squarely at the boy and spoke to him clearly while addressing the whole crew. “On account of I been studying that sky, and we are in for a wallop of a storm bigger’n you’ve ever seen. So, when the sun starts a settin’ you fellas get that gear stowed and start heading back, ya follow?” The table fell silent as the men nodded.
As the hazard-filled thoughts hung in the air, Mrs. Bronson chimed in. “Mr. Bronson and I are going to town today, boys, so if anyone needs anything, leave your lists and money on the front seat of the brown truck.” Bronson grunted unhappily, got up from the table, pulled his pipe from his pocket, and headed for the porch.
The men finished their meal, carrying their dishes to the sink to help Mrs. Bronson and thanking her at the same time. Kerry was the last to drop his plate in the soapy water. He tipped his hat to Mrs. B. and trotted out the door. Bronson caught Kerry’s shoulder as he was studying the sky. “You sure about that storm brewing, Daniels?” Kerry nodded. “Sure as anything there’s a storm on its way,” he smiled and kept walking.
As he crossed Donato’s path on his way to the barn, he said, “As soon as that wagon’s full of driftwood, cut a horse free and send a man back with it, dump it, and have him go back for another load.” Donato looked confused but nodded as he lit his morning smoke. He drew deeply on it and studied Kerry, looking for a sign of what was going on, but he got nothing.
The men departed for their assignments, and the Bronsons climbed into the truck. Mrs. Bronson began to sort the men’s lists and take account of the money they had left her. Bronson drove on. When his wife got to Kerry’s list, a big pile of money dropped onto her lap from between the pages. She quickly put her bag over it so Mr. B didn’t see. As she read the list, she tried to hide her grin and then she saw an extra note addressed “Mrs. B.” Another smile crossed her face, and she rolled down the window to take in the cool, mountain air.
Bronson parked the car and headed to the barber shop. “When you’re done and the boys have the truck packed, give the horn a honk and I’ll be right out.” Gruff as he always tried to be, he couldn’t help but notice after all these years how downright beautiful his wife still was. “Okay, John,” she said softly. He was making this easier than she could have hoped for. She could get the truck packed without him knowing what was in there.
Donato’s crew was in luck. Loads of driftwood had tumbled onto the banks of the river and were laying there baking in the sun. It was dry and light, and the guys had a wagon loaded within an hour. They cut out one of the horses from the team and readjusted the reins to have it drawn only by the bigger stud. The remaining horse, a chestnut with a white blaze, was always a game animal and would have no trouble pulling the logjam apart. Martens was assigned the job of driving the first load back to the barn area, and he departed immediately. Donato began hitching ropes and opening the river up with the spirited chestnut. As the trickles grew wider, the other jammed-up timber began to shake and bob in the water, pressure building all around. Finally, a crack and a rumble tore through the cool autumn air, and the jam broke loose. The chestnut spooked and reared, but Donato and the crew were far enough away that the wall of cascading water didn’t come near them. The rush was awesome as the heavy weight of water broke free.
“Yeeee Hawwww,” David howled, waving his hat over his head in circles. “Look at that lumber roll!” Earl looked on, smiling. Martens, who had just returned with the emptied wagon, got caught up in the excitement too. “Whooooooo Hooooooooo,” he shouted. It was so exhilarating! The spray from all of the timber movement seemed like rain, and all four men stood there grinning like it was the last day of school. “Dammit, Earl, let one rip!” Earl looked quizzically at Donato and shrugged. “Shout it out, boy!” Earl smiled, raised a fist, and said, “Yay!’ Donato walked over and wrapped his arms around Earl from behind. “Boy, I’m gonna shake some excitement outta you if it kills me! Now shout!” The other men looked on, smiling. Earl was startled to say the least, but something inside him wanted to cry out, and what the heck. Why not? Earl started to bellow a deep melancholy tone. It continued to rise. Soon he was literally screaming. He ran to the gushing waters of the riverside, where the sound from his lungs was practically absorbed. The men’s smiles began to waver. Earl was not only shouting but seemed to be yelling at someone, and his bursts became sobs. His face turned red and he ran his hands through his hair as he bellowed on and on. Finally, he stopped, walked a few steps back, and plopped down in the grass. The water receded, and the men stood there, looking at each other. “You okay, boy?” David said.
“Yeah, I am,” Earl said. “Better than I’ve been in a long time. Thanks, Donato.”
“Sure ‘nuff,” Donato grinned and spat. “Now let’s get this wagon loaded again; it’s getting towards sundown, and you heard the boss man. Earl, rig that team back up.”
A Fire Ignites
“Well, J.P., what do you think? That oughta hold it, no?” John-Paul looked at Cole and said, “I reckon,” with as much cowboy drawl as he could muster. He twisted the fence wire and Cole cut it. “Kid, you love this ranchin’ life, don’t cha?” John-Paul nodded, “I really do.” Cole began loading the truck. It was getting dark. “Tonight, when we get back, I want ya to tell your Pa. I know it’s hard to face him, but it’s in ya too strong, boy. A cowboy is straight forward and dead honest. I’ll go with ya if’n you like, but this is something you gotta do.”
John-Paul threw the rest of the gear in the toolbox that was bolted to the bed of the truck. “No, Cole,” he said as he hopped in the cab. “Some things a man has to do alone.” Cole turned his head towards the window and smiled. “Good man, J.P.”
The balance of the crew was sent on horseback for roping stray cows and bringing them back to the herd, while the other cowboys took the small truck down the trails and cut up any trees that had fallen across the path because once the snow fell, these blockages wouldn’t be detected until a horse had tripped over them; the snow could get mighty deep. As the crew began to lose the light, they all decided it was time to pack up, but heck, they didn’t see any sign of a storm. They gathered in a small gorge with barely a word among them when suddenly Dobbins raised his head like a hunting dog recognizing a scent. Looking at the sky toward the ranch, he saw smoke billowing in a thick cloud. “Hey, Danskin,” Dobbins said, “you know anything out that way but the ranch?” Danskin, on horseback, immediately lit out towards the compound. The others followed, going hell-bent-for-leather on both horseback and in the truck.
Cole and John-Paul came to the same conclusion, and their truck was bucking and bounding over the uneven land with all the speed they could handle and still keep the vehicle in one piece.
Donato’s crew could only go so fast with that big load, but they were certainly in a panic. How could the ranch burn down? It was all they had. Their warmth, their protection, their base of operation--their home.
And it was filled with the boss, his wife, his kids, their family.
They were all arriving from different points, but all they could see was the orange blaze in the distance. It must be the ranch. What else could it be?
The Clouds Part
Bronson, who’d been dozing in his chair, saw the bright, orange light out by the barn and tugged on his boots. He smelled a heavenly aroma from the kitchen but didn’t stop to ask what it was; instead, he barreled around the corner of the barn and saw Daniels. He was sitting there, whittling about 50 feet from the enormous blaze of driftwood that he had stacked and lit from the supply Donato’s crew had dumped.
As he came nearer, he saw that Kerry had set up a long dinner table and plenty of chairs. Mrs. Bronson was bringing turkeys, corn, potatoes, and pies to the table; she had been cooking all day since they got back from town while Mr. Bronson slept. Kerry stood there, bewildered.
The vehicles came roaring up to the blaze, and the men exchanged relieved glances. “Donato, have your men put the rest of that driftwood on the fire and then join us at the table. Boys, dismount and park your vehicles and then help Mrs. Bronson bring out the rest of the food.”
Everyone was now comfortable as they sat in the glow of the glorious burn. Daniels rose and leaned on the table with his head down. He stood erect and said, “Folks, there’s a heap of things that need to be said around here, and I’m a gonna say ‘em all. I grew up on a spread like this one and had me a houseful of brothers and sisters that helped my folks keep the place. There were a few that wanted a different life, and that was all right; they tried their wants in the outside world and some did fine, but some came back home, and that’s the word I want to unearth today. Home. This place, this lumber formed into a house is your home. And these fine people are your family. And the family too is not without fault, as we all seemed to forget the importance of having each other, needing each other, and loving each other. My family drifted apart and walked away from each other due to some misunderstandings that were allowed to fester and boil and never got resolved. I refuse to let that happen again. I have found my new home after years of being alone. When you all came barreling in today thinking the ranch was on fire, you were worried about your HOME and your FAMILY. Well, in order to keep it a home, we gotta act like a family.
Boys, those petty arguments have to stop. It tears at the harmony of a good crew. Can’t have that. If we have a problem, we gotta speak up and resolve it. Y’all had siblings. Open your mouth and don’t let things fester. This is your home!
Mrs. Bronson, the boys and I love you like a mother, and your heart keeps us going. We love doing things for you and seeing you smile. And Bronson, you have to stop making her feel bad for liking to be that way. She’s a peach. Your boys have some messages they been sending you too. John-Paul loves ranchin’ and wants to run this place with you in it, long after you’re unable. Your retirement plan is right here, John. He loves this life and dang it, he’s good!”
Cole spoke up, “He is good, Bronson. And he loves it. The other hands nodded and murmured their agreement. John-Paul just beamed.
Bronson stared at the ground, his eyes misting.
“And boss,” David said, “Earl blew a little steam off today that told us he’s got a lot going on inside too. I think Earl and Bronson need to make some words as well.” Bronson’s quiet sobs were telling.
“Now I’d like to thank Mrs. B. for putting together this giant meal, which cost me two paychecks mindya, but before we sit down and enjoy it AS A FAMILY, I gotta say this so we can be done with it. I know Bronson has had his share of pain. He lost a brother in a ranch accident that many people blamed him for. Well, I was a young boy looking on when that accident occurred, and it was not his fault, but he’s done saddled himself with the blame pretty near his whole life. Bronson, today you set that free. You can love your wife and your boys and even your crew. We won’t disappear. There’s no risk in loving your family, but we are eating out here tonight so we can leave all the problems to blow away in the wind. When we go back to our respective beds in this home, we start new. Does that sound like a good idea to you?”
“It sure does,” Bronson crackled through his tight throat. “I’m much obliged, Kerry.”
“Well, hells bells, I am the foreman,” Daniels grinned.
Bronson stepped over to his wife, who buried her head in his shoulder. Earl looked his father deep in the eyes and shook his hand slowly until Bronson brought him closer for a hug. John-Paul walked up to the family with the put-on saunter of a hard-ridden bronco buster and punched the old man on the arm. Bronson smiled and drew the boy close. He shook free and said, “Pa, not in front of the guys.”
“So, Daniels,” Bronson asked, “where’s this coming storm?”
Daniels shrugged, “Seems it just blew out to the mountains, Bronson. Now ain’t that somethin’?”
Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.