Sheep Herders Cabin
Mid October, 1966
It smelled of dust and dirty boot socks after a long day’s chore. Tattered pictures of scarcely clad women were pasted on the primitive walls of the tiny backroom—the pictures now partly torn to remove the women’s exposed privates. Momma said lonely sheepherders probably put them there.
An iron bed that was shoved up against the wall nearly filled the room. An oak rocking chair sat near a barrel-shaped woodstove that stood in the corner. We didn’t spend much time in that room but Grandpa did. He’d sit in the rocker by the fire, clad in a plaid flannel shirt, suspenders and rolled up blue jeans. A gray Stetson hat—the only brand he’d wear—hung on a nail in the wall beside the bed. Grandpa drank coffee strong enough to curl your toes and smoked hand rolled Prince Albert cigarettes. I was always fascinated how he made them. He had working man hands with thick and calloused fingers yet he could create the most delicate tightly wound cigarette I’d ever seen. They were nothing like the fat white store bought ones that Daddy and my aunts smoked though they smelled just as bad. Grandpa would pull a tiny brown onion skin paper from a shallow cardboard wrapper then hold it between two bulky fingers and gently shake the tobacco from the slender can. Then he’d roll the paper into a skinny log leaving a little flap. He’d place the thin paper to his lips and slither the tip of his tongue across the edge of the flap followed by a slide of his thumb to seal it tight. Then he’d light it up and place the trim red tobacco can back into his shirt pocket.
The front half of the cabin was the kitchen where Grandma spent most of her day. It was my favorite place of all. It had a knotty-pine cabinet hanging from the dividing wall that was covered with names and dates of visitors, written in ink serving as a guest book, a record of the past. The hearty wood cook stove that stood centered on the outside wall always had the giant gray speckled coffee pot brewing. That was the first thing Grandma unpacked when we arrived. She’d build a fire and get the stuff brewing. I wondered how something that smelled so good could taste so bad—bitter and nasty—but the grownups seemed to love the stuff, making special trips into the cabin just to fill their cup. They all had a little ritual before refilling their cup; it was something like panning for gold. First they would pour a small amount of coffee in the bottom of the cup. Then they swished and swirled before pitching it out the cabin door. This I figured removed the black gravel that settled on the bottom from the previous cup. After the pitching they were good to go, filling the purged cup to the brim before heading back out the door. Grandma said the cabin entrance was like a saloon door, “always swingin’.”
The worn board floor creaked and popped when you walked across it and always looked dirty. With a good cleaning and a crackling fire the dirty sock stench was soon replaced with the aroma of home. Steaming fresh biscuits and sausage gravy covered the long plank table along with Grandma’s homemade venison mincemeat pies.
Daddy loved them, but my sister and I thought they looked and sounded gross. Pies where supposed to be made of apples and berries and banana cream, not sweet spicy deer meat. I never tasted one; they looked yucky because they had a brown and lumpy filling. Deer meat was supposed to be eaten with ketchup and not as a dessert. Grandma always made a fruit pie for the kids.
Grandma sat in the kitchen in her wheelchair with the stub of one leg exposed, her wooden prosthetic cast aside for a time on the old iron bed. I don’t recall her wearing the shiny pink leg that much; mostly I remember the pale naked stump peeking out from under her loose calico dress. With her wood leg she could walk with a cane but usually used the wheelchair because the artificial limb caused her pain. Daddy said that Grandma had broken her leg years ago and the bone stuck clear through the skin. He said the doctor cast her leg too soon. Swelling cut off the circulation and gangrene infection set in causing her to lose her left leg just above the knee.
She pushed her wheelchair around the small cabin’s kitchen, using her foot while occupying her hands preparing a day’s meal. She could make a feast out of a sack of flour and a bag of beans and of course a pot of coffee. It’s what she did; it was her contribution as the rest of her family hunted for the winter’s meat supply. With nine grown children and 32 grand kids, meat was in high demand.
Daddy always shot the first deer on opening morning, a tender forked horn, and Grandma tagged it. It was used for camp meat during the month long season. I remember when the game warden stopped in camp to check the tagged buck.
Camp was empty except for several kids and Grandma who sat in her wheel chair with her amputated leg exposed.
“Who is Fern Melissa?” the warden asked her.
“I am.” Grandma replied.
“Who shot this deer?” the warden asked, while holding the tag in his hand that clearly revealed Grandma’s name.
“Well I did,” she said with certainty, as if the warden believed she wasn’t capable.
Staring down at her missing leg he asked, “How’d you do that in your condition?”
“They just pushed me out in the woods and I shot the darn thing.”
Looking around at all the dirty-faced kids running amuck, the young warden said, “Well congratulations.”
He returned each year after that and never asked that question again. His only comment was, “It’s amazing how Fern always gets the first deer every year.
A Sacred Place by Sherrie Gant is available at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com