I woke up the next morning to the smell of bacon and eggs and looked around.
The bedroom was small and the bed a little lumpy, but it had been a long trip, and I had slept well. The whole place had a different feeling to it, though I couldn’t describe it if I tried. Instead of the clean, whitewashed walls of our home, the “big house,” or so all the ranch hands called it, was plaster over chinked and squared logs, some of which you could see through places the plaster had worn thin. Mom had lithographs of botanical prints from England or somewhere hanging on the walls in our home, though in my room, a stern-visaged portrait of Brigham Young glowered down on me, as if echoing disappointment in me from the grave. Grandma’s house, though obviously well-kept and orderly, still had a more relaxed, casual sense to it.
On the wall above the bed was a cross-stitch reading “Love at Home” under a depiction of a cozy-looking cabin. On the opposite wall was a sepia photograph of a weathered-looking couple standing in front of an adobe farmhouse. The man had a slight smile showing through his white beard, and he wore threadbare boots, dirty trousers held up with suspenders, and a frayed linen shirt. The woman wore an apron of indeterminate pattern over a plain dark dress; her face looked stern and a little sad. Written in ink across the bottom was “Daniel and Mary McCurdie -Summer 1912.” To one side of the wood-framed bed stood a single dresser, made of pine and totally without ornamentation. On the top of the dresser was a small bowl filled with butter mints, which Grandma knew I loved. Popping a few mints into my mouth, I retrieved my folded clothes from my canvas bag and placed them in the empty drawers of the dresser. I think that’s when it started to feel like I was going to be here a while.
When I heard Grandma’s call to breakfast, I hurried to put on my trousers and shirt. My work boots had stayed on the front porch–Grandma’s iron-clad rule–and I shuffled into the kitchen in my old wool socks, where Grandma stood at the cast-iron stove in a faded dress and apron.
Noticing my toe sticking out of a hole in one of the socks, Grandma shook her head. “Someone needs to learn how to darn a sock, I’d wager.”
In the bright morning light, she looked even older and worn out than she had the night before, but her eyes still twinkled when she smiled at me.
“Get some milk out of the icebox, and sit down at the table,” she said firmly.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, noticing the couch where he usually slept was empty.
“I expect he’s having a look around the place, like he always does when he comes. I’m surprised he let you sleep in so late. It’s already past seven.”
“It was a long trip,” I said, taking my seat and pouring a glass of milk.
“Yup, but don’t think you’ll get to lay around here every day,” Grandma smiled. “There’s work to be done, and I’m counting on you to do it.”
Most kitchens are toward the back of the house, but Grandma’s kitchen was at one end of the front of the house, looking out through the long covered porch and out over the trees and meadow down the slope from the house. Out the side window was a smaller window over the large sink with a view of the mountains of the Bridger Range, and a small door led to a long, screened-in laundry room with a large galvanized-zinc washtub and lines for hanging clothes when the weather was bad. When you came in the front door, the living room and rock fireplace were to the left, and the kitchen was on the right. Mom had always said she would be mortified to have guests come in and see the kitchen first thing, but Grandma said, if she had to work in the kitchen most of the time, she wanted a view. Seeing the meadow, the trees, and the mountain lifted her spirits and reminded her every day how blessed she was. Mom couldn’t argue with that.
She set a plate full of bacon and three eggs on the table in front of me. “I would have had some orange juice for you, but we don’t go into town that often. Maybe next time.”
The tea kettle whistled on the stove, so she poured the hot water into a porcelain teapot and then put the lid on it to steep. I’d always wanted to try the tea, but Mom and Dad said it was against the Word of Wisdom and was a sin. I never understood why Grandma was allowed to sin–even in our home–with impunity, but I accepted it. Dad said that when he was growing up, Grandma would give him a sip of the tea and then, when the cup was empty, she would read the tea leaves for him. It was always the same, he had said: he would be a leader among men, beloved by all. I wondered what the leaves would say about me.
Soon she sat at the table and prepared her tea (milk first, then the tea, and finally one cube of sugar).
“I hope you haven’t left a young lady back in Utah,” she said. “Of course, there’ll be no time for that here. The only women on the ranch are me and Mrs. Pettit, who cooks and does the laundry for the hands. Oh, now I’ve gone and embarrassed you,” she said, smiling and patting my hand. “Maybe you’re not quite old enough for that.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said, turning to look out the window at the sheets on the line in the yard so she wouldn’t see my face, which felt flushed and hot. “I know how to work, and I’m not going to get distracted.”
“See that you don’t. Oh, I know you won’t. I’m just teasing.” She chuckled as she bit into a piece of toast.
“What am I going to be doing here?” I asked. No one had told much of anything other than I was going to be put to work.
“Well, the lambs need caring for, so maybe they’ll start you with that. I don’t believe you’re ready to be roping calves at this point.” No, I wasn’t.
“Go and talk to Seth, the foreman. He’ll straighten you out.”
After breakfast and a kiss from Grandma, I pulled on my boots and headed out the back door to the barn, where I knew Seth would be checking on the new lambs. Barns always smelled the same: that dry mixture of dust and straw that you could feel invading your nostrils. Our barn was always neat and well-ordered, and though a little less so, this was too–most likely because Grandma was known to rule with a bit of an iron fist. I found Seth seated on a small stool, mixing up a foamy white liquid in a large tin milk can. It smelled terrible. Arranged on the straw were several Pepsi bottles, a funnel, and a large paper bag.
“Just mixing up the milk for the lambs,” he said. “Here, help me fill the bottles.” I held each bottle and the funnel as he poured the milk in. It was warm, which somehow made the smell even worse.
“You’ll get used to the smell,” Seth chuckled, obviously noting my crinkled nose. When each bottle was filled, I reached into the bag, which was filled with rubber nipples, probably from baby bottles. “Stretch those over the top of the bottle,” Seth said, showing me how it was done. It took a little effort, but I managed to get all the nipples on without dropping any or spilling any milk.
“Your first job is to feed the lambs,” Seth said. Between the two of us, we carried the bottles to a small, fenced-off part of the sheep pasture, where several lambs were playing in the sun. When they saw us approach with the bottles, they came running toward us in that awkward way new lambs do, pushing their heads between the wires of the fence, bleating as if to say, “Me first!”
Seth left me with the bottles, and, one by one, I fed the lambs, who made quick work of the milk. When the milk was gone, they still bleated loudly for more, though I knew it was important not to over-feed them. I gathered up the empty bottles and took them to the laundry room. Grandma had heated some water on the stove, so I poured it into the washtub and washed each bottle and nipple with a worn bottle brush, dried them, and placed them and the bag in a wooden milk carton on a low shelf.
“Fence needs mending,” Seth said when I got back to the barn, where he was discussing ranch business with one of the hands. “Go on up to the north corner by the ridge. The other fellas are already there. You’ll have to walk it ’cause they already took the truck.”
It was about a twenty-minute hike along a rutted trail winding up to the top of the ridge, the left side of the trail what you might call pristine forest, and to the right fenced pasture where cattle grazed lazily in the early summer sunshine. It really was beautiful here, with the tall trees and the pine needles and cones covering the rugged ground. Much of the ranch had been cleared of trees, but they had left these as a windbreak against the cold Arctic wind and snow. The air felt crisp and somehow purer than any I had breathed, and I began to understand what Grandma meant when she said we were blessed.
“What do we have here?” I heard a voice say sarcastically as I approached the group of ranch hands, who were lifting into place a section of the rail fence that had been knocked or blown over. “Looks like we got us a little prince here,” the voice said, laughing.
I hoped they didn’t see how embarrassed I was, so I looked down at the ground and stammered, “I–I’m here … to work.”
“Oh, I’ll bet you are,” said the voice again. I could see the voice came from a lanky blond man with red, sun-burned skin and chipped front tooth, who wore patched overalls over longjohns. “Well, you’re working for us, now, so don’t expect your granny to protect you. You may be a rich kid, but here you ain’t nothing but one of us–and you’re the new kid, so you take orders from us, not the other way ’round. See?”
Rich kid? What was he talking about?
“Aw, leave’m alone, Parley,” said a decidedly kinder looking man. “He’s just a kid.”
“Yeah, he is, and he’s just going to get in our way. But we can’t say anything because he’s the chosen one. A pest is more like it. I’ll bet he ain’t worked a day in his life,” Parley said, spitting out some tobacco juice on the ground in front of me. “Well, you can coddle the prince, Lyme, but not me.”
“You know how to make a rail fence?” Lyme asked.
“I’ve watched men do it,” I said, “but I’ve never done it myself.”
“It’s not too hard,” Lyme said, smiling. “You’ll learn quick.”
“Well, if someone has to pick up the slack for this kid, better you than me,” Parley said, once again spitting on the ground.
“You’re Will, right?” said Lyme, stretching out his hand to mine. It felt sort of like sandpaper, but he seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. He was built a little more solidly than Parley, with broad shoulders and muscled arms. A thick neck held up a tanned face and dark, curly hair.
“And I guess you’re Lyme,” I replied. “I never heard a name like that before.”
“It’s short for Lyman,” he said. “Ma named all us boys after church leaders, hoping we’d become righteous men like them. Between you and me,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “I don’t think it worked with my brother here.”
“Now, don’t you be telling that boy anything bad about me,” Parley said. “I can still whup you.” It didn’t look like he could, given the difference in size between him and Lyme.
Split-rail fences are very simple: they run in a zig-zag pattern with roughly squared posts or rails (the split-rails spoken of), the ends of each rail stacked alternately on the ends of the next section. Here in Montana, support rails are leaned up on either side of each section’s end to brace the fence against the wind or cattle who don’t understand the concept of a fence.
The day before, heavy winds had blown through the area, forcing Grandma to hang the laundry in the washroom. The fence had fallen in several places stretching about half a mile, so Lyme and I worked all day standing up the upright sections and lifting the long rails into place. It seemed to me that a good-sized steer could easily knock the fence over, but Lyme told me that the steers didn’t know that, so they didn’t even try. He told me that once a cow had escaped from the pasture when a careless had left the gate unhitched. They found her hours later, her head pushed between the rails and bellowing loudly as she frantically tried to get back to the safety of the pasture.
“I guess when you put up a fence around them,” Lyme said, “it’s in their nature to stay inside, where everything is safe and there aren’t any surprises. People are kind of like that, too.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant.
At lunchtime Mrs. Pettit rode up in a small two-wheeled cart pulled by an old horse. It was just cheese sandwiches and lemonade, but it sure tasted good after all that work. “These troublemakers treating you all right?” Mrs. Pettit asked me as she handed me a second sandwich.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.
After she left, Parley put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Wasn’t I right? The old lady is keeping tabs on us, making sure we’re being extra nice to her baby. All I can say is you better work hard and keep your mouth shut or you’re gonna have trouble from me. Understand?”
“Dammit, Parley, I said knock it off!” said Lyme, pushing Parley away from me. “He’s just a kid, and he’s not doing any harm.”
“Now don’t you be trying to get in good with the old lady,” Parley said with a trace of bitterness in his voice. “We’re paid to work, not to babysit.”
“Will’s been working hard all morning,” Lyme said. “You give him any trouble, and you’ll be answering to me.”
“Well, hell’s bells, can’t even count on my own brother,” Parley said. “Come on, boys, there’s work to be done.” With that he turned and went back to the fence.
“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but he sure doesn’t like me.”
“Oh, don’t you mind my brother. He can be a real pain in the neck, but he’s harmless … most of the time.”
I thought I knew how to work hard, but it seemed like nothing I’d ever done was as strenuous as that first day’s work. By the time we heard Mrs. Pettit ring the dinner bell in the distance, my shoulders were aching from driving in fence posts, and my back and arms throbbed from lifting the heavy rails into place.
I rode in the back of the truck with Lyme and some of the other hands.
“You did all right today, kid,” Lyme said. “Looks like your dad taught you to work hard.”
“Yeah, and my mom, too,” I said.
“Oh, his momma taught to work,” Parley snickered. “Just what we needed, a ranch hand who works like a girl.”
“Hush up,” Lyme said, giving Parley a dirty look. “His mother probably works harder than you do. Will did a lot more work today than you did, anyway.”
“He just better stay out of my way,” Parley said, glaring directly at me.
I really didn’t know what to think. I’d never met anyone who had taken an instant dislike to me before. I’d always assumed most people were kind and decent by nature, but this didn’t add up.
“No, you better stay out of my way,” Lyme said. “You bother Will, and you’ll regret it.”
“Oh, should I be afraid?” Parley let out a guffaw.
“Maybe so,” Lyme said, looking deadly serious. I was beginning to wonder what the rest of the summer would be like, but at least I had Lyme on my side.
When we reached the scattered buildings adjacent to the big house, we all got out of the truck and headed toward the small dining hall attached to the bunkhouse.
“Where you goin’?” Parley said. “You don’t eat with us. You’re in with her highness.”
“You better hope Mrs. Murdock don’t hear you calling her that,” Lyme said. “You got nothing against her. She’s been good to both of us. You know that.”
“I was just funnin’,” Parley said.
“Can I eat here?” I asked Mrs. Pettit.
“You can eat wherever you like, but I think your grandmother is expecting you up to the big house with her tonight.”
I trudged up the path to the big house, where Grandma was pulling a tray of biscuits out of the oven. “Hmmm. These might be a little overdone, but they’ll be all right.”
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“Oh, he had to get home,” Grandma said, stirring something in a skillet. “He said he was sorry he didn’t have time to come up where you were to say goodbye.”
Dad had never been good at goodbyes.
For dinner we had sausage gravy over biscuits and some pickled beets and onions from the cellar. I always loved the fresh milk we got on the ranch, and I dived into the meal enthusiastically.
“Whoa, slow down there, partner,” Grandma said. “Food is to be savored, not inhaled.”
“Sorry, Grandma,” I said, slowing down. “Do you think it’d be all right if I ate my meals with the other hands? I want to learn to do what they do, and I don’t think I should be treated special.”
“If that’s how you want it,” Grandma said, looking a little crestfallen. “I’ll make you a deal. You eat with the hands every day except Sunday. Then, after church, you come up and eat with me. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said, happily.
“One more thing,” Grandma said. “My eyes are not what they used to be, and it’s hard for me to read my scriptures at night. I’d appreciate it very much if you came in after supper and read to me.”
“Sure,” I said. We had always read a chapter of the scriptures every evening before family prayer and bedtime, so it was pretty much a habit anyway.
“Well, then, that’s settled,” Grandma said. “You’re a fine young man, and you do my heart good. I’ll tell you what: when I am rich, I shall boil me an egg, and you shall have the broth.”
I didn’t know what to make of that, but she burst out laughing, so I did, too. She said that was what her mother always said to her, and she was happy to have someone to say it to.
That evening we sat by the fire and began reading the Book of Mormon–Grandma’s favorite, she said. Curiously, we started with the title page, which we had always skipped when our family read.
“We have to read it,” she said. “Those words come directly from the gold plates–all except ‘translated by Joseph Smith, Jr.’ You can’t say you’ve read the whole thing if you haven’t read the title page.”
It turned out to be a synopsis of the book’s contents, though I’d read the book before with my family. The Book of Mormon told the story of Lehi, a Jew who had lived in Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Christ. Warned in a dream that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians, Lehi gathered his family and went off into the wilderness in search of a promised land that God would show him. Lehi’s four sons went with him. Two, Nephi and Sam, were righteous and obedient. The other two, Laman and Lemuel, were rebellious and complained a lot (whenever I read about them, I imagined them sounding like Lou Costello from the Abbott and Costello radio program). They returned to Jerusalem twice, once to convince someone named Ishmael and his daughters to come with them, and the second time to retrieve the holy scriptures, which had been written on brass plates. Nephi had gotten himself into quite a scrape trying to get the plates, but an angel commanded him to chop off the head of the man who kept the plates–I had to admit it was pretty exciting.
They traveled through unfamiliar lands, guided by a sort of compass made of brass, which God had given them to show them the way. After traveling for quite some time–maybe even years–in the wilderness, they arrived at the seashore, where Nephi build a ship in which they sailed to America, which was the promised land spoken of. Once here in America, they had split into two groups: the righteous Nephites and the wicked, dark-skinned Lamanites. The two groups fought off and on for hundreds of years, and then one day there were earthquakes and floods and volcanos, and then three days of absolute darkness. Finally, the darkness dissipated, and Jesus appeared to teach them the gospel before he ascended to heaven. The people were righteous for a few generations, but eventually the Lamanites had wiped out the Nephites. Only the Lamanites survived, and their descendants had become the Indians who were scattered all through North and South America. It was our sacred duty to bring the gospel to the remnant of the Lamanites and restore them to their proper place in the House of Israel. Of course, the only Lamanite I had ever met had been the man at the trading post.
Grandma rocked slowly in her chair, her eyes closed, as I read:
Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.
TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH
When I finished, Grandma looked up and said, “That’s probably enough for tonight, dear.”
I closed the book over a ribbon bookmark and placed it back on the shelf near Grandma’s rocker.
“I always like to sing a hymn,” she said. “Do you know ‘O My Father’? It’s my favorite.”
We sang together, me quietly, probably out of embarrassment, but her voice was clear and melodic. She seemed to really appreciate the words of the song:
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you,
In your royal courts on high?
Then at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do.
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
“It’s time to pray,” she said. “Be a dear and help me get out of this chair.” I grasped her hands and helped her to her feet and then gently lowered her to her knees on the rag carpet in front of the fireplace.
Her prayer was in many ways quite formal, as she used the archaic “thou” and “thee” forms that I had heard in church so many times but still hadn’t mastered. Nevertheless, her prayer was heartfelt and familiar, and she prayed as if she were talking to a dear friend she deeply missed. I’d never heard anything like it, but I understood why she loved that hymn so much. To her, God wasn’t an abstract concept but a father, a loved one who was waiting for her to come home.
“I know my time in this earthly sphere is short,” she said, “but Father, help me to make the best of it to bless the lives of all those around me. Show me how to do thy will in my every act. I know thou hast guided me through my life, and I will follow wherever I am led.”
I realized that she was someone who had heard the voice of God, that her prayers had been answered. I was filled with the desire to be like her, to know what God wanted me to do.
“Please bless my young grandson, Will, that he will know thy voice and give heed to it. Watch over him in all things, and make him an instrument in thy hands, like unto Nephi of old.”
For the first time since my baptism, I had that strong desire to know God, to listen and follow, and I was determined to do what was necessary to get where Grandma was.
When she finished in Jesus’ name, “Amen,” I helped her to her feet, and she hugged me tightly, told me she loved me, and said she was glad I had come.
That night in my room, I knelt by the bedside and prayed fervently for guidance, for the voice of God to lead me. The room was quiet, and all I could hear was barely audible laughter coming from the bunkhouse. Maybe developing a relationship with God was like my dream of climbing the mountain: It would take time and effort, but I would get there.