He closed the barn doors and secured them, wiring the latch into place against the jarring wind. Reaching up, he felt for the wire and snapped his tether on it. He looked for the house, but all he could see was the wall of blinding snow. Well, that was the reason for the wire he told himself as he trudged through the growing drifts. In his first Montana blizzard he had become quickly disoriented in the one hundred and fifty foot walk from the barn back to the house. He could see nothing and was headed off in the wrong direction. Only Jenny’s well timed call to supper saved him. He never told her how close he came to wandering off, perhaps to die in the bitter cold. She worried about things like that.
After that, he strung the permanent taut wire between the house and barn and with the first flakes of snow, he put the tether in his pocket. He had awakened that morning to a leaden sky and a few harmless looking flurries, but Charlie Gunderson was a suspicious man when it came to Montana winters. After twenty five years, he knew when a bad one was brewing, and this was a bad one.
At last the glow from the kitchen window penetrated the white gloom. Jenny loved to look out on the ranch from that window, her arms waving a merry greeting and the white flash of her smile visible all the way to the lower fields. “May God rest her soul,” he thought bitterly, “But what about mine?” He felt the familiar heavy weight of loneliness upon his chest.
He mounted the steps to the porch and stomped as much of the snow off his boots as possible. Jenny used to scold him for tracking it in and he smiled at the memory. She never seemed to be able to find it within herself to work up a good mad at him, so she pretended.
With one hand on the doorknob, he paused and defiantly faced the wind. He respected the power of the blizzard, but he also challenged it. It was during such a storm that Jenny had fallen ill. He had wanted to fire up the Jeep and take her to the emergency room in Billings, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She would be fine until morning she insisted, and by then the storm would be over. But by morning she was gone. The doctor told Charlie that her little heart had simply given out and it wouldn’t have mattered, but Charlie never quite forgave himself for not making the effort. For that matter, he never forgave anyone for her loss.
He had just turned to enter the house when something soft and light flew out of the murk and plastered itself on the side of his face. He pulled it off and stared at it in astonishment. A bonnet? A child’s bonnet? No, more of a baby’s bonnet he told himself. A pink baby bonnet. But where had it come from? His nearest neighbor was some twenty miles away and to the west. The bonnet had come in on the wind and the wind was almost directly out of the north. The only thing out that way was the interstate. For a long moment, he peered into the storm as if to discern the origin of the bonnet. Finally, he shrugged and stepped into the house.
Charlie dished up some beans from the pot and forked bacon from the pan. The kitchen was warm and comfortable despite the cold, and that too reminded him of Jenny, Her father had installed a cast iron wood stove in their old Ohio home and so she insisted on one in the kitchen when they had built this house.
“There’s just nothing so comforting as a wood fired stove when you’re chilled to the bone Charlie! Besides, I can cook on it if need be.”
She had been right of course. As always.
He moved his plate to the table and glanced at the bonnet lying there.
On impulse, he picked it up and smelled it and there it was. The unmistakable sweet, clean smell of a baby’s head. And it was fresh, hours old if that.
He grumbled and ate his supper, glowering at the offending bonnet. It was none of his business. In fact, the owner was probably long gone, halfway out of Montana by now. A man would be a fool to venture out on a night like this.
He glanced up at Jenny’s picture on the wall. He had kidded her about her resemblance to the Mona Lisa smile. Now her eyes seemed to be watching him, and they seemed…reproachful? No, something else. Hopeful?
Below her picture was the special Crucifix he ordered for her all the way from the Vatican. The Pope himself had blessed it. Charlie averted his eyes. He and God had been at odds since Jenny‘s passing. She was gone and her loss was something Charlie could not accept nor forgive. He was holding a grudge and it was a big one.
Outside, the wind’s shriek seemed to increase and Charlie stared balefully at the bonnet. A man would be a damn fool to leave a warm house on a fool’s errand, especially when he couldn’t see five feet in front of him! He would almost certainly get lost and freeze to death! It was completely out of the question.
He finished the last of his supper and began to gather up what he might need.
Interstate 94 lay some three miles to the north. If anyone was out there, they were most likely stranded on the highway. Charlie stepped off the porch with his pack over his shoulder and walked around the corner to the garage. He looked longingly at the Jeep with its outstanding heater and then crossed to the snowmobile. He tied off the pack and donned his face mask. He glanced at the wall thermometer. Fifteen degrees, down five from an hour ago. He fired it up and crawled out of the garage.
The lights revealed the scene only about three feet ahead of him through the driving snow, but the northbound ranch road was still visible now and then, although long stretches were covered in drifts. At last he came to the road’s abrupt turn to the east and he abandoned it. Somewhere, about three hundred yards ahead was the fence line, so he proceeded with great caution. Hitting a steel fence wire even at low speeds could take off a limb…or worse. Suddenly, in the snow diffused yellow beam of the lights he spotted what at first looked like a rusted coffee can, but proved to be the top of a wooden post. A drift had buried the fence. His first break of the night.
The highway now lay about a mile to the north with its own, somewhat higher fence erected by the state to keep livestock off the interstate. There were also some scattered snow fences just before the main fence, which would serve as a warning. With nothing known to be in front of him until the snow fence, Charlie chanced a slightly higher speed.
Finally, he pulled up to the main fence and shut off the snowmobile. Other than the faint ticking of the cooling engine, he heard nothing but the shriek of the wind. To his right and probably a mile away was the lighted sign advising drivers of the distance to Miles City, but it was now invisible in the snow. It was also possible that the storm has caused a power failure. Nothing moved and there was no sign of life. There was only the snow. Finally, Charlie did the only thing left to do. He lifted his face to the heavens.
“Now look Lord, I know we’ve been on the outs. I’ve been ignoring you since you took my Jenny and I’m still mad about that, but now I have a favor to ask and it’s to your benefit as well as mine. I’m asking for a truce. I think one of your babies might be out here needing my help, but Lord, I don’t know which way to go so if you’d just….”
To his left he heard the far-off sound of a car horn. Just one short, weak sounding blast and then silence. Charlie looked up to the heavens again and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. After a long moment, he shrugged and turned the key on the snowmobile.
He almost missed the car. It was in the broad, interstate ditch and completely covered by a drift. Only the telltale shape alerted Charlie to its presence. A few snips with the wire cutters and the snowmobile was through the fence. The state boys would sure be riled over that one, but he’d deal with them later.
Pulling a short shovel from his pack, he scooped away enough snow to clear the driver’s window. In the beam of the flashlight, he could see a young woman lying across the front seat. To his astonishment, she was wearing only a dress. No coat! He tapped on the window. No response. He tapped louder. Nothing. Thoroughly alarmed, he scooped some snow off the roof and banged on it with his fist…hard! The woman sat bolt upright, fright making her face white in the harsh beam of the flashlight.
“Name’s Charlie. Charlie Gunderson. I came to see if anybody needed help.” He was shouting through the closed widow over the roar of the wind.
For a long moment, the woman stared at him as if seeing an apparition. Then she blinked and rolled down the window.
“Oh my Lord in Heaven! I was praying that someone would come along. I slid off the road and I thought someone would stop to help, but no other cars came by. None at all! I tried to call for help but my cell phone won’t work. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. Or so cold!”
“I’m sure they closed the road. Somehow they missed you. Cell phone service out here is spotty at best and useless in snowstorms. I have some hot soup and a snowmobile suit. I’ll be right back”.
“Wait!” she cried, “Do you have any blankets? I wrapped my baby daughter up in my coat, but she needs more.” Charlie moved the beam to the back seat where he saw the bundled baby. He nodded. “Yeah, I have blankets too”.
He started to turn away and had a thought. “Good thing you had the common sense to honk your horn now and then. Otherwise, I might have missed you.”
“Actually, I accidentally bumped it rolling over on the seat. The strange thing is that’s the first time it has worked in over two years!”
Charlie involuntarily looked up to the heavens. Under his breath he muttered, “You do have your mysterious ways don’t you Lord? Who knew you could repair a car horn? I guess you have your reasons for what you do. Maybe I had better rethink your taking of my Jenny. Yeah, maybe I’d better.”
Two hours later, they were in Charlie’s house and he was feeding wood to the fire.
“That wood stove is so comforting. I see why people like them.” The woman’s name was Mary Davis and neither she nor her daughter had serious injuries. Charlie had examined their toes and fingers with a practiced eye but could detect no frostbite. They were lucky. Another hour or two and it might have been a different story. That jarred his memory and he reached into his shirt.
“I forgot to ask. Is this your daughter’s?” He handed the bonnet to Mary. For a moment she just stared at it, and then took it with trembling fingers.
“Where did you get this? I made this myself.” she asked in a choked whisper.
“Well, I reckon it must have blown out of your car and I guess the storm winds must’ve carried it up here. It came right up to me and it’s the reason I set out to find you. Sort of a miracle I suppose.”
Unconsciously folding and unfolding the bonnet in her lap, she stared at Joe until he became slightly uncomfortable. Finally, she seemed to gather herself and spoke in such a quiet, subdued voice that Joe strained to hear her.
“A miracle you say? Well, I suppose this is the day for it, it being Christmas Day and all.”
Charlie’s brows went up. He had no idea what day it was. When Jenny left, holidays had ceased to matter. That too must change.
She went on. “You see Charlie, my husband died suddenly last fall and without any warning. He loved me and he adored our tiny baby Martha, so I when I buried him, I left him a gift to remember us by.”
She looked up to Charlie with tears welling in her eyes and a look of wonder in her face.
“I buried this bonnet with him.”