One Load of Piñon Wood
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“One Load of Piñon Wood,” Ensign, Mar. 1972, 46

Fiction:

One Load of Piñon Wood

A fictionalized account of a true incident

It was December 23, 1894. This had been another bad year for the Culler family, which now included the father, Nathanial (Nat); his wife, Polina; the children: Elry, 15; Ernest, 14; Ada, 12; Lillie, 10; Cora, 6; Ella, 2; and a six-month-old baby, Asa. Living with them were Nat’s parents, Benjamin and Peggy Margaret Spainhower Culler.

The family lived in a three-room log cabin on a hay ranch east of Manassa, Colorado. Here they tried to raise a garden, some grain, and a few head of cattle. The late spring and early fall frosts, common in this high mountain valley, created a short growing season, and it was hard to get the crops to mature.

Nat often reflected about the differences between this high, cold, dry sagebrush-covered mountain valley and the homes they had left in North Carolina. There the climate had been mild, with ample rainfall, fertile land for planting crops, hardwood for fires and building material.

The Cullers had left it all for one reason: they were converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They had willingly left homes, property, and relatives to settle near the body of the Church in the mountain valleys of the West. This, then, is the setting for our story.

There was not the faintest glimmer of light on the bedroom window when Nat touched his feet to the rough-sawed cabin floor that December morning. That first touch sent a twinge of pain up his leg. His feet were badly frosted, and the cold floor made him aware that he had forgotten the cold in the warmth of the featherbed.

Nat pulled on his trousers and shirt and softly stepped between the children’s pallet beds to the fireplace, where he had left his shoes and sox to dry the night before. The fire had died down during the night, but the heavy log was still alive with glowing coals. Nat could see the faces of his children in this glow, and he bowed his head for a moment to silently thank his Creator for them. How like angels they looked, sleeping there!

Taking some kindling from the woodbox, he rekindled the fire until he had a blaze going. Elry had cut the kindling and filled the woodbox the night before. He was a good son, Nat thought; he did all he could to help provide for the family.

Feeling the warmth of the fire made it harder for Nat to think of going outside. With a deliberate effort, he pulled some grain bags from the side of the woodbox and wrapped them about his feet and legs, tying them in place with long, soft leather thongs. Then he took his heavy mackinaw and fur cap from the pegs behind the door and pulled on his mitts.

There had been more snow and a hard southwest wind in the night. Nat knew that the yard would be drifted full. He could see where the snow had sifted through the cracks in the cabin walls.

As Nat unlatched the cabin door and looked out, he could see just the faintest glow of dawn over the Sangre de Cristo range. It was light enough for him to make out the deep snowdrifts. The fierce wind had nearly swept the unprotected ground clear of snow, only to pile it in high drifts around the sheds and stacks. He kicked around in the chicken yard until he found the shovel, then cleared a path from the cabin to the corrals.

He tossed some grass hay over the fence to old Duke and Roanie, but they ignored it. Standing there with their feet close together, icicles hanging from their manes and tails, they looked frozen in place. Nat thought of how the livelihood of his family depended on these two horses. They were just ponies, really, known to most of the farmers in the valley as Mexican “broomtails,” a tough little breed coming through the early Mexican settlers from the wild Indian ponies. Nat had traded for Duke while he still owned the little grocery store in Manassa. Roanie had been part payment on a credit grocery account, the balance still unpaid.

Nat and Polina had trusted everyone in the community, thinking the townspeople would be as honest as they themselves. Soon, however, their little store was in trouble. They had tried to collect, but everyone pleaded poverty. The funds they had brought from North Carolina were gone, and they had lost their store and home to creditors.

This morning Nat had no time for such thoughts; he had to get a load of piñon wood to the DePriest store. The flour bin was empty, and his family would be without food if he could not get the wood delivered before nightfall. He would leave the milking to Elry, and maybe Grandpa would be able to cut the firewood.

After placing some hay in the log feeder for the cows, Nat took the two lead ropes from the corral post and shook the snow and ice from them. Then he slipped the end of one of the ropes around Duke’s neck and made it fast. Duke stood quietly, but not Roanie. He snorted and jumped, slipping on the frozen ground as Nat came near, but it was no use. He wasn’t to escape the rope, for Nat was in no mood for games this morning.

After harnessing up the horses, Nat took a large forkful of hay and put it on the back of the wood rack; then he put a lard bucket of oats into a grain bag for the horses’ noon meal.

Daylight arrived, and Nat knew that he must hurry. Looking to the west, he could see that the storm was not over. Dark clouds ringed the western hills, and the wind whipped long snow plumes from the tops of the Mogote peaks. He hurried to the cabin, where he found Polina busy preparing his breakfast and putting a lunch for him in a salt bag. He could see that she had fried an egg for his lunch, and he started to say something to her about saving the few eggs they had for the grandparents and the children, but then he thought better of it. Maybe she would be comforted thinking the extra morsel would help him survive the hard work and the cold. If he could just get a good load of wood today, old Mr. DePriest might pay him in groceries, and they needed the supplies desperately.

Grandpa got up to kneel with them for prayer. Though he insisted on going with Nat after the wood, Nat was able to convince him that it would be better for him to stay and finish the feeding and the other chores. “Pa, you know how cold it has been,” he explained, “and the children are not well. It will take a lot of wood to keep the fire going so the family can be warm. We have burned up all that I cut day before yesterday.”

So, with Polina’s “Please do be careful and try not to be too late” ringing in his ears, Nat climbed onto the wagon and started out across the field toward the snow-covered hills.

The first sharp snap as his ax bit into the frozen tree trunk made Nat wince. His hands were sore and calloused, but it was the pain just under his left shoulder blade that made him gasp for breath. With each succeeding swing he thought of his youth in the Carolina woods and how his father had taught him to chop a clean cut—never to miss the mark, to remove as large a chip as possible, and to make every lick count. Soon the steady rhythm sent the chips flying over the frozen snow.

Moving along the hillside, he cut, limbed, and piled the wood from each tree. Most of the trees were swell-butted, so he had to do a lot of cutting for very little wood. He no longer felt the soreness, but he realized now that his sleepless nights and hard days had robbed him of some of the snap he used to have on the ax handle. By midday he had cut about two-thirds of a load.

Stopping for lunch, he put on his mackinaw and sat down to rest for a few minutes. He knew that he couldn’t take long because the time was passing quickly, and he could feel the stiffness coming back.

After he finished cutting the load of trees, he tied the chain twister with a lead rope. Suddenly he noticed the sky darkening. The western hills were masked by falling, blowing, drifting snow. Now there was a new urgency in getting his load home before the blizzard hit the eastern hills.

Hoping to save some time, he decided to cut across the snow to the tracks he had made that morning. Ordinarily he would have walked across to make sure the way was clear, but tonight he needed to hurry. He had barely started when the front wagon wheels dropped into a hidden depression in the ground under the snow. The wagon stopped so short and unexpectedly that Nat was thrown from the load and landed just behind old Duke and nearly under the wagon wheel. He scrambled out of the way of the frightened horses, calling, “Whoa, Duke! Whoa, Roanie!”

It was evident from the beginning that no amount of effort on the part of the team could get the wagon out of the ravine, that the banks were as high as the front wheel hubs and straight up in front and back of them. The front wagon hounds were pressed into the frozen earth. Still, Nat had to try.

When he found that the team couldn’t move the wagon forward, he took off the binding chain, removed the doubletrees, hooked the team onto the back of the wagon, and tried to pull it out backwards. But the wagon wouldn’t budge.

Nat started unloading the wood. Finally, when all of it was off but two of the largest poles, he was able to pull the back end sideways and lift out one front wheel at a time.

Now that the wagon was free, Nat thought that he would hitch up the team and go home empty, leaving the wood he had worked so hard to cut there in the snow-covered ravine. But he couldn’t give up so easily—he had to have this load of wood. Slowly he pushed each piece up the bank and then climbed out to load it on the wagon. By now he was covered completely with mud, snow, and ice. One last very heavy chunk remained. It refused at first to yield to his waning strength, but suddenly, from somewhere deep inside, or perhaps from above, came a surge of energy, and he succeeded in finishing the loading.

Now the dancing, whirling snow was all about him, and night was settling fast. He could not see the tracks from the wagon, so he went forward to lead the horses, following the tracks he had made coming in that morning. Finally he knew he was off the hillside and back in the frozen, rutted tracks leading to the river.

The snow was so thick that nothing could be seen. Nat thought that he might just as well ride, so he stopped the team and climbed wearily onto the load. His wet clothes were frozen stiff, and he was beginning to feel sleepy. He knew he must walk. Stopping the horses, he again tied the lines solidly to the load and slipped unsteadily from the wagon, nearly falling when his numb feet hit the frozen snow. Now he stood beside the horses, urging them on. He knew that in some manner not quite understood by men they could find their way home where a man might be utterly lost. He reached for a stake on the side of the rack, and as his hand closed on it, he found himself being half dragged in the deep snow. Then he lost consciousness. He would never remember coming to or crossing over the river.

Grandpa’s watch said it was eight o’clock. It had been dark for hours. Elry opened the door and looked out into the spinning flakes, listening, but there was no sound except the moaning of the wind. Ada had lighted a candle and set it in a dish in the window. Grandma sat still in her rocker with her head bowed. Polina clasped her hands tightly in her apron. It was so quiet in the cabin. Only the crackling of the fire and the roar of the storm could be heard.

Finally Grandpa could stand it no longer. Taking the old lantern, he and Elry and Ernest would go as far as the corrals, where they would call and listen for an answer.

A gust of wind blew the lantern out before they got as far as the well, and the flakes were so thick and the wind so strong that they could hardly breathe. They could no longer see the cabin or the candle in the window. Groping through the deep snow, they suddenly stopped. During a lull in the wind they heard the high-pitched squeal of iron tires on frozen snow; then the sound was gone. But they knew that the wagon was close by.

Running back to the cabin, they relighted the lantern and covered it with an old cloth to protect it from the wind. Outside, they could hear the tire squeal more plainly now, and they rushed in the direction of the sound. It stopped. Straining, they listened again, then hurried on toward the direction from which they had last heard it.

The team had pulled up to the corral, the horses covered with frozen mud and icicles, the lines tied to the load. But where was Nat? Fear gripped them. They called and called, but only the wind answered. Ernest called again, almost sobbing. “Oh, Pa, where are you?”

Slowly a snow-covered figure came out of the blackness and a low voice said, “Here, my son.”

Both boys ran to their father and led him back to Grandpa.

Grandpa, catching his breath, cried, “Nat, we are so glad you’re safe.”

“So am I. There was a while there when I didn’t know. Can you boys take care of the horses? Take a sack and rub the snow and ice off them and give them some hay and oats and let them go in the cowshed. Just lay the harnesses by the front wagon wheel. We will dig them out in the morning. Come on, Grandpa, let’s see if we can find the cabin and a fire.”

When the family heard the stomping and slapping to remove the snow, the sad faces lighted with smiles. A chorus of small voices cried, “Oh, Papa, we are so glad you’re home!”

Lillie, from a pallet bed by the fire, now voiced the thought that all were reluctant to admit before: “Papa, we were afraid you were lost in the storm.”

Wearily, Nat changed into some dry clothes. “Polina, I believe my feet are frosted again. Better have the children get a pan of snow to rub them before they start to get warm.”

Elry and Ernest, who had just come in from caring for the horses, went right out to get the snow. Then Ada and Cora helped their mother rub Nat’s feet with snow as he sat on a small wooden bench before the fire.

Nat stared long into the dancing fire, which warmed his cold and weary body, but it was the love of his family that now warmed his soul. Their loyalty, love, faith, and prayers had brought him safely home through the storm. No matter how hard the struggle or how long the days, the reward of such a homecoming made the effort worthwhile.

That night with all his family kneeling around him, Nat voiced their gratitude. “Our Father in heaven, we thank thee for thy mercy and thy many blessings to us this day.”

Illustrated by Richard Hull