Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Good Winter

painting by James Augsburger

Buck and his wife Millie bundled in heavy winter clothing to brave the knee-deep snow and below-zero temperatures. They leaned into the blinding blistering wind to make their way to the cattle barn. The 50-yard trek might as well have been 50 miles. By the time they reached the barn their faces, toes, and fingertips were numb.

Inside the barn, they stomped the snow from their boots and brushed it off their coats. They stepped into a small room between the main part of the barn and the milk room. It was used as an office and they kept it warm enough to remove the chill.

This is the worst winter we’ve had,” Buck said to Millie. “I know, I said that last year too.” He rubbed his arms,

And the year before,” Millie said holding her hands to her face and blowing

Buck grabbed a clipboard that hung on a nail and scraped frost from a window. He looked down the lane. “Milk truck will probably be late today. Looks like a drift across the lane. I’ll get the plow out. I don’t want the truck stuck in our lane.”

Didn’t you plow it out yesterday?” Millie said.

The wind picked up last night,” Buck said, “just enough to wrap a drift around the maple and across the lane.”

You ought to cut it down,” Millie said.

Buck ignored her and hung the clipboard on the nail in the wall.

Okay,” Millie raised her eyes. 

It’s a beautiful tree,” Buck said. “I’ll cut it down.”

Yeah,” Millie said and motioned with her head to the main part of the barn. “Let’s feed our guests.”

They walked out of the room and into the main part of the barn.

Buck looked up at the haymow. “I’ll toss the bails down.” He gripped the ladder and climbed up.

He tossed several bails to the floor of the barn. Millie grabbed hold of the baling wire and lifted the bails into the feeding trough. Then she tugged the wires free and wrapped them up. Several cows plodded toward the trough. By the time she completed most of the bails, Buck had climbed down from the haymow and helped spread the rest of the hay.

Although the barn protected them from the harsh wind and pelting snow outside they were cold. Their fingers grew numb again and their noses ran.

This will be our last winter on the farm,” Buck said. “It’s a pipe dream. I guess it has always been a pipe dream. We burn wood to save money on fuel oil. If it wasn’t for the wood I cut and split we’d all freeze to death.”

I thought you said it would take at least seven years before we’d get our heads above water,” Millie said. “This is only our fourth year.”

Our first three years were bad,” Buck said, “but this year has beaten me; I’m all in. Look at it out there.” Buck flung his arm toward the door. “It’s cold out there, more ways than one. It’s going to be below zero for the rest of the week.”

What will we do?” Millie said.

My brother called me last week,” Buck said.

Brad, the builder,” Millie said sarcastically.”I’m sure he called to tell you he had the money he owes for the two sides of beef from our herd.”

No,” Buck said. “He said his business is taking off. He has three houses contracted to build. As soon as the weather breaks, he’s starting. And he wants to be a partner with him.”

This is the Brad who sold a bunch of his tools and needs tools to start those houses?” Millie said. “What he really needs is your tools.”

I can work that all out with Brad,” Buck said.

What about the farm?” Millie said.

We can sell it,” Buck said. “We will at least break even.”

We move into town, right?” Millie said.

Yes,” Buck said.

New schools for Danny, Marti, and Jilly?” Millie said. “Where will we live at first? Not with Brad. I’m not cleaning his hair out of the drain and picking up empty beer cans.”

I can talk to him,” Brad said.

Start with paying us for the two sides of beef,” Millie said. “And next the truck you gave him.”

Buck clicked his cheek. “Yeah, Brad’s a leach but this has to be our last winter. We can’t live like this any longer.”

Give it a couple more years,” Millie said. “If you don’t, you may regret it someday. At least give it the time you said you would.”

A man knows when he’s beat,” Buck said. “It’s smarter not to answer the bell than go out with the ring and get your head bashed in. I want to walk away, not be carried away. I’d like to have just a little dignity left.”

The door to the barn swung open. Buck and Millie quickly turned. Wind and snow rushed in like water through a gaping hole in the side of a ship.

It was Jilly, a ten-year-old bundled in layers of winter clothing. She pulled off her stocking cap. Wispy blond hair fell on her face. She gasped for air from the long walk from the house to the barn. She smiled like she crossed the finish line as a winner.

Dad, Mom,” Jilly said, “This is the best darn winter yet. All of us sleeping in the living room together to keep warm. Nobody has it better than us!”

Buck paused and smiled at Millie. “You and Jilly go back to the house and make some hot chocolate for us—plenty of marshmallows. As soon as I finish in here I’ll be up.”

Jilly pulled her hat back on and reached out to Millie. “Come on, Mom, I’ll race ya back to the house.”

They left and Buck went back into the small office. From the window, he watched Millie and Jilly stumble and fall in the snow. They laughed and giggled. They reached the porch of the house and disappeared inside.

Buck stood at the window. The bitter cold winds whipped around the house, the woodshed, across the barnyard, past the barn, and off into the white weather-beaten barren fields. He looked to the western skies. Foreboding fluffy dark clouds slowly rolled near like celestial gray mountains.

I got a drift to plow, hot chocolate to drink, and a family to keep warm. I hope next winter is just as good as this one.”

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