• Christmas Along The Green

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    The Green River begins in the crags of the Wind River Mountains as melt water from its glaciers. The river meanders 730 miles downstream, and then dumps an average of 6100 cubic feet per second of brownish-red water into the Colorado, almost doubling its size.

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    During John Wesley Powell’s exploratory voyages in 1869 and 1871, he and his men named the canyons, rapids, and geographic features along the river.  Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons, the Gates of Ladore, Citadel and Tollgate Rocks, and the rapids –– Hell’s Half Mile and Disaster Falls are two of many. He and his fellow explorers had no idea of the oceans of oil and gas that lay below and on both sides.

     

    Ninety-one miles downstream from the headwaters sits Big Piney, the oldest settlement in Sublette County. It was founded in 1879, when rancher Daniel B. Budd and his partner Hugh McKay came through with nine hundred head of cattle.  They were hoping to ship them from the railhead at Point of Rocks, near Rock Springs, but instead got caught in a winter storm just west of where Big Piney was eventually located. Surprisingly the cattle did well –– pawing up dried grass for feed. The two partners decided to homestead in the Valley – – seventy miles long and thirty miles wide. Salt River Mountains to the west, Wind Rivers to the east, high arid plains to the south.  The Budd’s, now in their fifth generation, still have thousands of acres and thousands of cattle. 

     

    The valley, at seven thousand feet, had quick summers, and was not conducive for raising crops, but the early cattlemen recognized its grazing potential. Cattle were turned out to feed, rounded up in the fall, then sold to the army or shipped by rail to eastern markets. The early ranchers discovered that, like the buffalo, their stock could feed year-round on sparse but nutritious prairie grasses that cured on the stem.

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     There were lots of creeks and meadows, but much of the range was sagebrush, sometimes with only enough grass to feed one steer per thirty-five acres –– but there were thousands of acres where cattle could wander, on unclaimed public lands.

     

    In those early years, the total cost to raise and transport a full-grown steer to the railhead could be as low as $4.50, yet the sales price of the critter sometimes exceeded fifty dollars.  Fortunes were made and then lost when the weather or the drought killed almost all the cattle. Teddy Roosevelt was run out of the cattle business in ‘86’ when he lost sixty percent of his herd to the long rough winter. 

     

    That same rugged winter hit the Green River Valley, causing great loss to livestock.  Statewide it was worse; around three million head perished, especially around Laramie and Cheyenne. It was a vicious natural disaster and many homesteaders lost their start. Over the years, ranchers gradually stopped depending on winter grazing to sustain their cattle. They cleared sagebrush in low areas, filed on water rights and developed irrigation systems to grow grass and hay for their Hereford Shorthorns and Spanish Longhorns.

      

    Before that time the cattlemen built their herds and let them drift to wherever there was feed.  One Scottish cattle baron said, “I let the cows graze where they want and drink where they will.”  Two years later, he filed for bankruptcy as his cattle tried to graze on ice and snow –– out of 5300 head only 91 survived. 

     

    Nevertheless the leafy grass, the water, the beauty of the mountains and the open range continued to attract would-be cattlemen to the valley.  Rangeland could be bought for twenty-five cents an acre, even along some of the major watercourses. Over time, the larger ranchers bought out those who gave up and abandoned their holdings.  During the bad years, a popular saying was, “ A man’s poverty could be determined by the number of cattle he possessed.”

     

     The open range on the far side of the river from Big Piney was not the best; and it became more barren as you went east until you hit the south Wind River drainage.  As you left the river, the landscape turned into sandstone outcroppings, alkali, and sagebrush with little grass.  There was the problem of getting the cattle across the river to the west, especially in the spring and fall.  The river was as deep as twenty-five feet with very few fords.  Still, there were plenty willing try their luck and homestead a hundred-and-sixty acres – available to any citizen if he would improve his claim.

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    And luck was needed if they gave ranching a try.  Nearest doctor – a hundred and twenty miles.  The less fortunate died of pneumonia, scarlet fever, compound fractures, infections, snakebites, gunshot accidents, and madness.  Some just lay down and died after losing everything.  They froze, died of exposure, drowned or drank themselves to death.  Many of those who didn’t die ended up with disabling injuries to legs and arms. The ones who made it through were undeterred by the challenge – pragmatic adventurers who had the constitution and health of a Grizzly bear.

     

                                           **********************

     

    And so here is where our story begins, with three tough families –– the Graftons, O’Briens, and Langtrees – who had stuck along the east side of the river –– seven miles from the little settlement of Big Piney.  The Grafton’s were up river, the O’Brien’s in the middle and the Langtree’s downstream.  From the Grafton’s cabin to the Langtree’s was about eleven miles.  Took about two hours to ride from point to point when the weather was fair.

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    The families occasionally saw one another at roundups, branding in the spring, and in town or whenever a joint need called. They did cooperate on a wobbly ill-built bridge (just large enough to handle a narrow gauge wagon) across the Green, south of O’Briens spread.

     

    Hugh O’Brien had been a preacher, but his real background was that as a stonemason back in Pennsylvania.  He had read a pamphlet that spouted, “Cattle Ranching, Gold on the Hoof.”  Came west, bought his spread and cattle, and built his large house back from the riverbank –– of quarried red and alabaster sandstone.  The walls, the floor and fireplace, even his outhouse was made of rock.  He used cottonwood logs for the roof, covered with reeds, then mud, then sod and finally thin stone.  He had a substantial inheritance, and with some luck, had built his herd to thirteen hundred cows.

     

    His wife Betsy was a skillful, happy person who always had a hug and a smile for everyone, although she had grown somewhat larger than Hugh would have liked.  But everyone loved her –– she would sit and listen to anyone’s woes for as long as they needed to talk.  She had a certain magic that left them fortified, consoled and encouraged.  Betsy had been a schoolteacher and taught the Langtree children along with her own.

     

    She and Hugh had three daughters, Hope, Faith and Charity, and an eight-year-old boy named Gabriel.  During the first winter, Hugh’s horse slipped and he fell hard to the sandstone – breaking his arm and disabling him for two months. The forty-five-year-old O’Brien decided he was done with rounding up cattle during rain, snow or wind.

     

    He was fond of telling visitors, “I prefer to stay at home in bad weather where it’s warm and dry and the risk of violent death is much reduced. The springtime of my buoyant youth has passed me by and I see no reason to squander the time I have left.”  All three families had rough outbuildings and barns to shelter their horses, pigs, chickens, and milk cows.  The population of the Green River Valley in 1889 was 296 souls.

     

    The Grafton’s were a raggedy, troublesome bunch –– Gordon, his brother Lafe, and Gordon’s three sons, age 16 to 22.  No one ever said anything about a wife or mother.   All bearded and longhaired –– gaunt and narrow-faced, teeth and fingers missing, gruff and crude –– pretty much smelled like a bunch of randy goats.

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    One of the cattle buyers stopped by their cabin, took a sniff, and asked Gordon if a passel of skunks had died under the floor; he swore that Gordon’s breath came out brown.  Hygiene was an unknown concept to the bunch, but talk was that they all jumped in the river on August 15th, and called that their yearly bath.  But there was an exception.  The youngest, Luke, was just beautiful.  Born to the saddle good looks, hair and beard cut best he could with a skinning knife. 

     

    The Grafton’s were good ranchers –– best cattle on the east side of the Green. They put every dime they made into more cattle and more land and ran the ranch by themselves. Greta Langtree commented that they were just like some of the hill people near her hometown –– too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.

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    The Grafton’s had spent their first winter in a sandstone cave above the river.  That was the same year the Potter building was completed in New York –– much the same color and material, but 2200 miles east.  What a contrast – a rough family on hardscrabble ground hunkered down in a cave – versus a gilt-edge financier living in his penthouse.

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    The O’Brien’s and the Grafton’s had split a failed rancher’s one-hundred-forty acre spread two years ago –– a mile and a half downriver from Grafton’s.  The man who homesteaded the property, Julius Simplot, was from Massachusetts, and had no business trying to be a rancher.  Simplot was a painter and a poet, but wanted to make the fortune he had heard about, along with living with what he thought would be an idyllic country life –– something like Walden Pond. 

     

    He didn’t know how to take care of his stock, or lay in supplies for winter, or even cut firewood.  And despite some help from the other three families, it all slid downhill.

     “ Jay Langtree said to his wife, “I tell you Simplot couldn’t pound a nail in mud if his life depended on it.”  His stock perished, he was a poor horseman and he couldn’t even decide on a brand before the first roundup.  Only forty-one cows were in the drive to the railhead, and the general store in Big Piney wouldn’t advance him any additional credit. 

     

    Then one day, his wife Jenny was riding east looking for strays –– holding their daughter in front of her (the little girl had a broken arm from a steer kick).  The gelding they were riding stepped into a prairie dog hole –– breaking its leg and throwing the riders hard to the ground – the six-year-old struck a rock. The mother went mad, walked into the Green and slipped under without a sound.

     

    Simplot prepared a tombstone for his wife and little daughter and put it on the hill up from the cabin.

     

    Comes our day,

    Our Glory Blazing Bright

    We burn a path across the sky

    Then vanish into night

    Yet our circles never end

    From Day to Dusk to Dawn

    For In death we pass to life,

    As the circle passes on.

     

    Hugh and Betsy O’Brien did their best to comfort him, but Julius was gripped with overwhelming sadness to the point he couldn’t respond. His face lined and exhausted, he finally said, “Seems like everything has pulled out from under me, the ranch, cattle, and now my family.  I have nothing left, not even hope.”

     

    That night he set the cabin ablaze and disappeared.  No one knew if he was still inside when the roof and walls burned. The O’Briens’ and Langtree’s children would go to the charred remains and look at the tombstone during a summer’s full moon, swearing they could see the Simplot ghosts standing in the moonlight on the ridge above.

     

    The Langtree’s had started with pounded dirt floors, a sod roof, and chinked log walls, but now they had put in hand sawn timber floors, log joists covered with lodge pole pine and pitch for a roof –– and hired three cowboys to help run the spread.

     

    Jay Langtree had three children, one boy and two girls, all from his first marriage –– his wife died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever after a tick bite –– three months after they came into the valley.  His second wife, Greta, came from the Halcyon Mail Order Firm in New York City, sight unseen.

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    The lady who showed up was a German hausfrau with a lemoned face – ill tempered, resentful and with a sharp tongue.  One of the better-educated cowhands commented, ” In my view she is sullen, hostile and aggressive –– and that is on the good days.” Just the opposite of Jay who never missed a meal and had a welcome grin for everyone.  His new wife eventually realized that he was relentlessly positive and that he lived up to the principle that no person of character should ever complain about things he was unable or unwilling to do anything to remedy.

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    Nothing to do for Greta but follow suit –– and she did –– completely changed her personality within six months and became a happy person for the first time in her life.  She had worked in a cigar factory rolling cigars, an occupation her small hands were suited for –– she could sew, knit, spin yarn and weave with grace and speed.  Despite her appearance and initial fearsome presence, she was very kind, with a soft heart, a good second mother to the children, and she could outwork any man along the river.  Her favorite comment when there was a dispute was, “less talk, sooner mended.” 

     

    It began snowing earlier than usual in the fall of 1899 – snow in all directions, frigid and unsympathetic.  And it kept on ­–– each week brought more and more –– only interrupted by howling winds that scoured the snow into drifts, rocked the cottonwoods and bent the willows flat.  And it was cold, forty below after midnight down by the river.  The drifts didn’t melt and the ice in the river piled up against the bridge, finally destroying it on December 10th, blocking any way to town. 

     

    When the river had frozen over the previous year, Roy Able, a hired hand of the Langtree’s  (with too much thirst and no whiskey) decided to head for town for a drink, but didn’t want to make the trip up to the bridge. He ignored his companions’ advice and started to ride his mare across the ice instead of leading her.  A third of the way across, the ice gave and the horse’s forelocks broke through.  As the mare tried to back away, the surface fractured and both horse and rider plunged in.  The horse foundered and was dragged under, but Able was able to pull himself up on an ice edge.  His friends threw him a lariat.  He got enough of a grip to pull himself almost free from the hole, but then his glove came off.  Roy froze before anyone could get a lasso around him.

     

    On December 19th, the weather had been clear for three days, but bitter (thirty below).  Snow pack was around three feet next to river, up to a horse’s belly.  There was the rough trail along the bank between the three ranches, but normally there was no reason to traverse it in winter.

     

    Mrs. O’Brien told her husband that since both humans and beasts alike were suffering, she was going to celebrate Christmas with an afternoon dinner and invite their two isolated neighbors.  Her preacher husband said, “Do you think any will come in this weather?”  “Well, they ain’t going anywhere near town with the bridge smashed and snow this deep.  I’ll send Sam up to invite the Grafton’s, and Eli down to the Langtree’s.  Probably take em’ a couple hours each way with the snow.” 

     

    By afternoon the two riders had returned, they and their mounts shivering with cold.  Hat’s pulled down with kerchiefs over the top and under their chins. The Langtree’s said they’d show if the weather holds. “Grafton’s will come, except maybe Lafe.” 

     

    “You all know old Lafe; hard cut, with a lot of rough bark still on him.  I’ve heard he was one of William Quantrill’s Raiders in the war.  Do you know the story about him and the wolf? He was cuttin’ firewood last October –– up in the pines –– saw a gray wolf roughly 100 yards away, thought it was a lone bachelor.  With a double- bladed ax, he wasn’t afraid of just one wolf.  As the lupine came closer, Lafe could see it was starving –– tail down, ribs showing,  ears flattened, hackles raised, long incisors shining as it bared its fangs.  It backed down a few yards, so Lafe turned away to stack some limbs –– then he heard it coming.”

     

    “As he whirled around the wolf was about 15 feet away, charging at full speed.  No time for the ax.  Pulled his fingers close together, cocked his elbow, and formed his hand into a spear. As the wolf went for his exposed neck, Lafe leaped towards him and drove his fingers and arm between the open jaws and into the throat.  Then made a fist to choke the beast and slammed it onto a log, leaving his hand wedged in its throat.  Its claws shredded his pants and coat, but by then he had his knife.  Of course, then he went back to cutting wood. Lafe has a reputation as a harsh, gruff, grumpy old man, but I think he has a good side –– first one to lend a hand if there’s trouble.”

     

     

    On Christmas Day the Langtree’s showed up about 2 PM.  The Grafton’s a half hour later.  Three cowboys had dragged a log on an angle like a snowplow so the Langtrees could make their journey in a hand-made sleigh.  Greta Langtree had brought dried Potawatomi plums, squash pies and a ham.  She also brought strudel, fresh corn bread and choke cherry preserves.  The Grafton’s contribution was fifty-two bottles of homemade beer, the first of which exploded when Lafe sat it down unopened too near the fireplace.  The five Graftons had been facing into blowing snow on their way down river and were caked in an inch of frost, which they forgot to shake from their greatcoats in their hurry to charge in and get warm.  Immediately O’Brien welcomed the men and said he had something to warm them up – eighteen year-old Jamisons Irish whiskey.   “I believe this will ward off the elements,” he said.  He poured each man a measure in a mason jar.  “Whiskey don’t taste right unless it comes from a drinkin’ glass, can’t respect a man who uses a tin cup.”

     

    Betsy O’Brien and Greta Langtree laid out the dinner for the twenty-two family members and cowhands on tables assembled from sawhorses and interior doors.  She used bed sheets for tablecloths, and dishrags for napkins, and then brought out her wedding silver.  But she counted the pieces carefully, not wanting some of the settings to wander into an errant pocket.  At that point the two ladies and their daughters laid on the spread.  Sage Hens stuffed with pine nuts, stewed crab apples, and sweet potatoes.

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    Beefsteak to feed an army.  Potatoes and yams from the root cellar and roasted turnips and potatoes. The Grafton’s beer and some of Langtree’s Whistler’s Wine accompanied the mounds of food.

       

    Luke, the youngest Grafton, attacked his meal like he thought he’d never get another, with an appetite that would not have stopped at horseshoes dipped in fresh cow manure.  When sixteen year-old Hope O’Brien sidled up next to him, and sat so their hips were touching, he said that all they normally ate was slumgullion, boiled down gruel, and sunuvabitch stew. “I found porcupine needles and badger fur floating in my bowl last week.  Only change we ever get is canned succotash.  It’ll be different when I have my own spread. You gonna’ meet me like last time when the snow is gone?”  As she nodded he gave her a smile and tried to slide even closer. 

     

    The warmth, the comradeship and the great meal brought a sense of euphoria and contentment –– no one wanted to leave, and more than a few had started to nod off.  The dinner lasted until 6 PM, and already a few had stuck their heads out to see if the weather was holding as night fell. It wasn’t –– there was a full-force blizzard, which roared like a runaway locomotive. 

     

    Hugh had strung a rope between the outhouse and the main cabin after a cowboy had staggered back snow-caked to the point he looked like a ghost.  “Wouldn’t want to lose one of the party and not find him til’ spring,” he laughed. “How is it out there anyway?”  The cowpoke shook his head .  “It ain’t the gentle dew that falls from heaven.”  I can assure you of that.”

     

     The Grafton’s and the Langtrees were starting to shake off the effects of the liquor and the enormous meal.  Their anxiety starting to show – about getting home to take care of their animals and make sure their fires hadn’t gone out.

     

    “We’ve got a few presents to distribute before you go,” said Mrs. Langtree, “Can’t go til’ then.”  Lafe reached into a gunnysack and brought out dolls for all the girls.  There was dead silence.  No one knew what to say.  The dolls had been hand carved with such professional skill that they resembled each of the girls, down to hair color and shade of eyes.  The dresses were made of mink, ermine, white leather, feathers, semi-precious stones, and goose down.  The girls were delighted.   Then the Grafton boys brought out exquisitely carved rocking chairs for Betsy and Greta all in pieces – and put them together without nails in less than a minute.

     

    Greta Langtree had made new canvas pants and shirts for all the Grafton’s, and knitted them wool socks – to replace the ones they had fashioned out of flour sacks.  The men were stupefied to the point of hanging heads and muttered thanks –– tears welling in their eyes.  

     

    Greta and Betsy offered to cut anyone’s hair that wanted and give them a shave –– and about ten wanted, including Luke Grafton.  A few other gifts were distributed, then Gordon brought out two gunnysacks –– both wiggling like a batch of prairie dogs.  He gave one to each family and they dumped the contents on the floor.  There were squeals of delight from all the children.  Here were eight-week-old wolf pups –– ready to play.

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    Then the Reverend O’Brien let the congregation in several songs –– Jingle Bells, I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day, Silent Night, Home On The Range, She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain, and others. Many of the hands and other men had unknown qualities when it came to singing, but made up the difference in volume.

     

    With the darkness outside it looked to be a brutal ride home through the storm –– torrents of snow screamed through the night.  The Graftons went first, but the rush of wind was so ferocious that they couldn’t mount their horses. Luke Grafton was blown clear over.  O’Brien, Langtree, and their hands went out to help and dragged the men back into the house.  “We’ve got to get home and take care of our stock and keep and a hearth fire –– otherwise everything will freeze,” said Gordon.” “If you leave now, you’ll be dead before you go a mile –– all of you,” said Hugh.”

     

    Then Charity, the youngest and most devout O’Brien daughter asked if she could say a prayer so that angels might come and guide everyone safely home. 

     

    Angels above me

    Angels below

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    Derek Ollivier

    7:04 AM (15 hours ago)

    to me
    Great story Dad!  Loved it!!

    Brings back memories of our four wheeler ride to the lake!
    Derek
    On Dec 20, 2017, at 6:59 PM, Joseph Ollivier <josephollivier@gmail.com> wrote:
    Christmas along the Green
    The Green River begins in the crags of the Wind River Mountains as melt water from its glaciers. The river meanders 730 miles downstream, and then dumps an average of 6100 cubic feet per second of brownish-red water into the Colorado, almost doubling its size.
     
     
    <download-1.jpg>
    <download-2.jpg>
     
    During John Wesley Powell’s exploratory voyages in 1869 and 1871, he and his men named the canyons, rapids, and geographic features along the river.  Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons, the Gates of Ladore, Citadel and Tollgate Rocks, and the rapids –– Hell’s Half Mile and Disaster Falls are two of many. He and his fellow explorers had no idea of the oceans of oil and gas that lay below and on both sides.
     
    Ninety-one miles downstream from the headwaters sits Big Piney, the oldest settlement in Sublette County. It was founded in 1879, when rancher Daniel B. Budd and his partner Hugh McKay came through with nine hundred head of cattle.  They were hoping to ship them from the railhead at Point of Rocks, near Rock Springs, but instead got caught in a winter storm just west of where Big Piney was eventually located. Surprisingly the cattle did well –– pawing up dried grass for feed. The two partners decided to homestead in the Valley – – seventy miles long and thirty miles wide. Salt River Mountains to the west, Wind Rivers to the east, high arid plains to the south.  The Budd’s, now in their fifth generation, still have thousands of acres and thousands of cattle. 
     
    The valley, at seven thousand feet, had quick summers, and was not conducive for raising crops, but the early cattlemen recognized its grazing potential. Cattle were turned out to feed, rounded up in the fall, then sold to the army or shipped by rail to eastern markets. The early ranchers discovered that, like the buffalo, their stock could feed year-round on sparse but nutritious prairie grasses that cured on the stem.
     
    <th-8.jpg>
     
     There were lots of creeks and meadows, but much of the range was sagebrush, sometimes with only enough grass to feed one steer per thirty-five acres –– but there were thousands of acres where cattle could wander, on unclaimed public lands.
     
    In those early years, the total cost to raise and transport a full-grown steer to the railhead could be as low as $4.50, yet the sales price of the critter sometimes exceeded fifty dollars.  Fortunes were made and then lost when the weather or the drought killed almost all the cattle. Teddy Roosevelt was run out of the cattle business in ‘86’ when he lost sixty percent of his herd to the long rough winter. 
     
    That same rugged winter hit the Green River Valley, causing great loss to livestock.  Statewide it was worse; around three million head perished, especially around Laramie and Cheyenne. It was a vicious natural disaster and many homesteaders lost their start. Over the years, ranchers gradually stopped depending on winter grazing to sustain their cattle. They cleared sagebrush in low areas, filed on water rights and developed irrigation systems to grow grass and hay for their Hereford Shorthorns and Spanish Longhorns.
      
    Before that time the cattlemen built their herds and let them drift to wherever there was feed.  One Scottish cattle baron said, “I let the cows graze where they want and drink where they will.”  Two years later, he filed for bankruptcy as his cattle tried to graze on ice and snow –– out of 5300 head only 91 survived. 
     
    Nevertheless the leafy grass, the water, the beauty of the mountains and the open range continued to attract would-be cattlemen to the valley.  Rangeland could be bought for twenty-five cents an acre, even along some of the major watercourses. Over time, the larger ranchers bought out those who gave up and abandoned their holdings.  During the bad years, a popular saying was, “ A man’s poverty could be determined by the number of cattle he possessed.”
     
     The open range on the far side of the river from Big Piney was not the best; and it became more barren as you went east until you hit the south Wind River drainage.  As you left the river, the landscape turned into sandstone outcroppings, alkali, and sagebrush with little grass.  There was the problem of getting the cattle across the river to the west, especially in the spring and fall.  The river was as deep as twenty-five feet with very few fords.  Still, there were plenty willing try their luck and homestead a hundred-and-sixty acres – available to any citizen if he would improve his claim.
     
    <powderriver.jpg>
    And luck was needed if they gave ranching a try.  Nearest doctor – a hundred and twenty miles.  The less fortunate died of pneumonia, scarlet fever, compound fractures, infections, snakebites, gunshot accidents, and madness.  Some just lay down and died after losing everything.  They froze, died of exposure, drowned or drank themselves to death.  Many of those who didn’t die ended up with disabling injuries to legs and arms. The ones who made it through were undeterred by the challenge – pragmatic adventurers who had the constitution and health of a Grizzly bear.
     
                                           **********************
     
    And so here is where our story begins, with three tough families –– the Graftons, O’Briens, and Langtrees – who had stuck along the east side of the river –– seven miles from the little settlement of Big Piney.  The Grafton’s were up river, the O’Brien’s in the middle and the Langtree’s downstream.  From the Grafton’s cabin to the Langtree’s was about eleven miles.  Took about two hours to ride from point to point when the weather was fair.
     
    <images-14.jpg> 
     
    The families occasionally saw one another at roundups, branding in the spring, and in town or whenever a joint need called. They did cooperate on a wobbly ill-built bridge (just large enough to handle a narrow gauge wagon) across the Green, south of O’Briens spread.
     
    Hugh O’Brien had been a preacher, but his real background was that as a stonemason back in Pennsylvania.  He had read a pamphlet that spouted, “Cattle Ranching, Gold on the Hoof.”  Came west, bought his spread and cattle, and built his large house back from the riverbank –– of quarried red and alabaster sandstone.  The walls, the floor and fireplace, even his outhouse was made of rock.  He used cottonwood logs for the roof, covered with reeds, then mud, then sod and finally thin stone.  He had a substantial inheritance, and with some luck, had built his herd to thirteen hundred cows.
     
    His wife Betsy was a skillful, happy person who always had a hug and a smile for everyone, although she had grown somewhat larger than Hugh would have liked.  But everyone loved her –– she would sit and listen to anyone’s woes for as long as they needed to talk.  She had a certain magic that left them fortified, consoled and encouraged.  Betsy had been a schoolteacher and taught the Langtree children along with her own.
     
    She and Hugh had three daughters, Hope, Faith and Charity, and an eight-year-old boy named Gabriel.  During the first winter, Hugh’s horse slipped and he fell hard to the sandstone – breaking his arm and disabling him for two months. The forty-five-year-old O’Brien decided he was done with rounding up cattle during rain, snow or wind.
     
    He was fond of telling visitors, “I prefer to stay at home in bad weather where it’s warm and dry and the risk of violent death is much reduced. The springtime of my buoyant youth has passed me by and I see no reason to squander the time I have left.”  All three families had rough outbuildings and barns to shelter their horses, pigs, chickens, and milk cows.  The population of the Green River Valley in 1889 was 296 souls.
     
    The Grafton’s were a raggedy, troublesome bunch –– Gordon, his brother Lafe, and Gordon’s three sons, age 16 to 22.  No one ever said anything about a wife or mother.   All bearded and longhaired –– gaunt and narrow-faced, teeth and fingers missing, gruff and crude –– pretty much smelled like a bunch of randy goats.
     
    <th-3.jpg>
     
    One of the cattle buyers stopped by their cabin, took a sniff, and asked Gordon if a passel of skunks had died under the floor; he swore that Gordon’s breath came out brown.  Hygiene was an unknown concept to the bunch, but talk was that they all jumped in the river on August 15th, and called that their yearly bath.  But there was an exception.  The youngest, Luke, was just beautiful.  Born to the saddle good looks, hair and beard cut best he could with a skinning knife. 
     
    The Grafton’s were good ranchers –– best cattle on the east side of the Green. They put every dime they made into more cattle and more land and ran the ranch by themselves. Greta Langtree commented that they were just like some of the hill people near her hometown –– too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.
     
     
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    The Grafton’s had spent their first winter in a sandstone cave above the river.  That was the same year the Potter building was completed in New York –– much the same color and material, but 2200 miles east.  What a contrast – a rough family on hardscrabble ground hunkered down in a cave – versus a gilt-edge financier living in his penthouse.
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    The O’Brien’s and the Grafton’s had split a failed rancher’s one-hundred-forty acre spread two years ago –– a mile and a half downriver from Grafton’s.  The man who homesteaded the property, Julius Simplot, was from Massachusetts, and had no business trying to be a rancher.  Simplot was a painter and a poet, but wanted to make the fortune he had heard about, along with living with what he thought would be an idyllic country life –– something like Walden Pond. 
     
    He didn’t know how to take care of his stock, or lay in supplies for winter, or even cut firewood.  And despite some help from the other three families, it all slid downhill.
     
     “ Jay Langtree said to his wife, “I tell you Simplot couldn’t pound a nail in mud if his life depended on it.”  His stock perished, he was a poor horseman and he couldn’t even decide on a brand before the first roundup.  Only forty-one cows were in the drive to the railhead, and the general store in Big Piney wouldn’t advance him any additional credit. 
     
    Then one day, his wife Jenny was riding east looking for strays –– holding their daughter in front of her (the little girl had a broken arm from a steer kick).  The gelding they were riding stepped into a prairie dog hole –– breaking its leg and throwing the riders hard to the ground – the six-year-old struck a rock. The mother went mad, walked into the Green and slipped under without a sound.
     
    Simplot prepared a tombstone for his wife and little daughter and put it on the hill up from the cabin.
     
    Comes our day,
    Our Glory Blazing Bright
    We burn a path across the sky
    Then vanish into night
    Yet our circles never end
    From Day to Dusk to Dawn
    For In death we pass to life,
    As the circle passes on.
     
    Hugh and Betsy O’Brien did their best to comfort him, but Julius was gripped with overwhelming sadness to the point he couldn’t respond. His face lined and exhausted, he finally said, “Seems like everything has pulled out from under me, the ranch, cattle, and now my family.  I have nothing left, not even hope.”
     
    That night he set the cabin ablaze and disappeared.  No one knew if he was still inside when the roof and walls burned. The O’Briens’ and Langtree’s children would go to the charred remains and look at the tombstone during a summer’s full moon, swearing they could see the Simplot ghosts standing in the moonlight on the ridge above.
     
    The Langtree’s had started with pounded dirt floors, a sod roof, and chinked log walls, but now they had put in hand sawn timber floors, log joists covered with lodge pole pine and pitch for a roof –– and hired three cowboys to help run the spread.
     
    Jay Langtree had three children, one boy and two girls, all from his first marriage –– his wife died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever after a tick bite –– three months after they came into the valley.  His second wife, Greta, came from the Halcyon Mail Order Firm in New York City, sight unseen.
     
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    The lady who showed up was a German hausfrau with a lemoned face – ill tempered, resentful and with a sharp tongue.  One of the better-educated cowhands commented, ” In my view she is sullen, hostile and aggressive –– and that is on the good days.” Just the opposite of Jay who never missed a meal and had a welcome grin for everyone.  His new wife eventually realized that he was relentlessly positive and that he lived up to the principle that no person of character should ever complain about things he was unable or unwilling to do anything to remedy.
     
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    Nothing to do for Greta but follow suit –– and she did –– completely changed her personality within six months and became a happy person for the first time in her life.  She had worked in a cigar factory rolling cigars, an occupation her small hands were suited for –– she could sew, knit, spin yarn and weave with grace and speed.  Despite her appearance and initial fearsome presence, she was very kind, with a soft heart, a good second mother to the children, and she could outwork any man along the river.  Her favorite comment when there was a dispute was, “less talk, sooner mended.” 
     
    It began snowing earlier than usual in the fall of 1899 – snow in all directions, frigid and unsympathetic.  And it kept on ­–– each week brought more and more –– only interrupted by howling winds that scoured the snow into drifts, rocked the cottonwoods and bent the willows flat.  And it was cold, forty below after midnight down by the river.  The drifts didn’t melt and the ice in the river piled up against the bridge, finally destroying it on December 10th, blocking any way to town. 
     
    When the river had frozen over the previous year, Roy Able, a hired hand of the Langtree’s  (with too much thirst and no whiskey) decided to head for town for a drink, but didn’t want to make the trip up to the bridge. He ignored his companions’ advice and started to ride his mare across the ice instead of leading her.  A third of the way across, the ice gave and the horse’s forelocks broke through.  As the mare tried to back away, the surface fractured and both horse and rider plunged in.  The horse foundered and was dragged under, but Able was able to pull himself up on an ice edge.  His friends threw him a lariat.  He got enough of a grip to pull himself almost free from the hole, but then his glove came off.  Roy froze before anyone could get a lasso around him.
     
    On December 19th, the weather had been clear for three days, but bitter (thirty below).  Snow pack was around three feet next to river, up to a horse’s belly.  There was the rough trail along the bank between the three ranches, but normally there was no reason to traverse it in winter.
     
    Mrs. O’Brien told her husband that since both humans and beasts alike were suffering, she was going to celebrate Christmas with an afternoon dinner and invite their two isolated neighbors.  Her preacher husband said, “Do you think any will come in this weather?”  “Well, they ain’t going anywhere near town with the bridge smashed and snow this deep.  I’ll send Sam up to invite the Grafton’s, and Eli down to the Langtree’s.  Probably take em’ a couple hours each way with the snow.” 
     
    By afternoon the two riders had returned, they and their mounts shivering with cold.  Hat’s pulled down with kerchiefs over the top and under their chins. The Langtree’s said they’d show if the weather holds. “Grafton’s will come, except maybe Lafe.” 
     
    “You all know old Lafe; hard cut, with a lot of rough bark still on him.  I’ve heard he was one of William Quantrill’s Raiders in the war.  Do you know the story about him and the wolf? He was cuttin’ firewood last October –– up in the pines –– saw a gray wolf roughly 100 yards away, thought it was a lone bachelor.  With a double- bladed ax, he wasn’t afraid of just one wolf.  As the lupine came closer, Lafe could see it was starving –– tail down, ribs showing,  ears flattened, hackles raised, long incisors shining as it bared its fangs.  It backed down a few yards, so Lafe turned away to stack some limbs –– then he heard it coming.”
     
    “As he whirled around the wolf was about 15 feet away, charging at full speed.  No time for the ax.  Pulled his fingers close together, cocked his elbow, and formed his hand into a spear. As the wolf went for his exposed neck, Lafe leaped towards him and drove his fingers and arm between the open jaws and into the throat.  Then made a fist to choke the beast and slammed it onto a log, leaving his hand wedged in its throat.  Its claws shredded his pants and coat, but by then he had his knife.  Of course, then he went back to cutting wood. Lafe has a reputation as a harsh, gruff, grumpy old man, but I think he has a good side –– first one to lend a hand if there’s trouble.”
     
     
    On Christmas Day the Langtree’s showed up about 2 PM.  The Grafton’s a half hour later.  Three cowboys had dragged a log on an angle like a snowplow so the Langtrees could make their journey in a hand-made sleigh.  Greta Langtree had brought dried Potawatomi plums, squash pies and a ham.  She also brought strudel, fresh corn bread and choke cherry preserves.  The Grafton’s contribution was fifty-two bottles of homemade beer, the first of which exploded when Lafe sat it down unopened too near the fireplace.  The five Graftons had been facing into blowing snow on their way down river and were caked in an inch of frost, which they forgot to shake from their greatcoats in their hurry to charge in and get warm.  Immediately O’Brien welcomed the men and said he had something to warm them up – eighteen year-old Jamisons Irish whiskey.   “I believe this will ward off the elements,” he said.  He poured each man a measure in a mason jar.  “Whiskey don’t taste right unless it comes from a drinkin’ glass, can’t respect a man who uses a tin cup.”
     
    Betsy O’Brien and Greta Langtree laid out the dinner for the twenty-two family members and cowhands on tables assembled from sawhorses and interior doors.  She used bed sheets for tablecloths, and dishrags for napkins, and then brought out her wedding silver.  But she counted the pieces carefully, not wanting some of the settings to wander into an errant pocket.  At that point the two ladies and their daughters laid on the spread.  Sage Hens stuffed with pine nuts, stewed crab apples, and sweet potatoes.
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    Beefsteak to feed an army.  Potatoes and yams from the root cellar and roasted turnips and potatoes. The Grafton’s beer and some of Langtree’s Whistler’s Wine accompanied the mounds of food.
       
    Luke, the youngest Grafton, attacked his meal like he thought he’d never get another, with an appetite that would not have stopped at horseshoes dipped in fresh cow manure.  When sixteen year-old Hope O’Brien sidled up next to him, and sat so their hips were touching, he said that all they normally ate was slumgullion, boiled down gruel, and sunuvabitch stew. “I found porcupine needles and badger fur floating in my bowl last week.  Only change we ever get is canned succotash.  It’ll be different when I have my own spread. You gonna’ meet me like last time when the snow is gone?”  As she nodded he gave her a smile and tried to slide even closer. 
     
    The warmth, the comradeship and the great meal brought a sense of euphoria and contentment –– no one wanted to leave, and more than a few had started to nod off.  The dinner lasted until 6 PM, and already a few had stuck their heads out to see if the weather was holding as night fell. It wasn’t –– there was a full-force blizzard, which roared like a runaway locomotive. 
     
    Hugh had strung a rope between the outhouse and the main cabin after a cowboy had staggered back snow-caked to the point he looked like a ghost.  “Wouldn’t want to lose one of the party and not find him til’ spring,” he laughed. “How is it out there anyway?”  The cowpoke shook his head .  “It ain’t the gentle dew that falls from heaven.”  I can assure you of that.”
     
     The Grafton’s and the Langtrees were starting to shake off the effects of the liquor and the enormous meal.  Their anxiety starting to show – about getting home to take care of their animals and make sure their fires hadn’t gone out.
     
    “We’ve got a few presents to distribute before you go,” said Mrs. Langtree, “Can’t go til’ then.”  Lafe reached into a gunnysack and brought out dolls for all the girls.  There was dead silence.  No one knew what to say.  The dolls had been hand carved with such professional skill that they resembled each of the girls, down to hair color and shade of eyes.  The dresses were made of mink, ermine, white leather, feathers, semi-precious stones, and goose down.  The girls were delighted.   Then the Grafton boys brought out exquisitely carved rocking chairs for Betsy and Greta all in pieces – and put them together without nails in less than a minute.
     
    Greta Langtree had made new canvas pants and shirts for all the Grafton’s, and knitted them wool socks – to replace the ones they had fashioned out of flour sacks.  The men were stupefied to the point of hanging heads and muttered thanks –– tears welling in their eyes.  
     
    Greta and Betsy offered to cut anyone’s hair that wanted and give them a shave –– and about ten wanted, including Luke Grafton.  A few other gifts were distributed, then Gordon brought out two gunnysacks –– both wiggling like a batch of prairie dogs.  He gave one to each family and they dumped the contents on the floor.  There were squeals of delight from all the children.  Here were eight-week-old wolf pups –– ready to play.
     
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    Then the Reverend O’Brien let the congregation in several songs –– Jingle Bells, I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day, Silent Night, Home On The Range, She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain, and others. Many of the hands and other men had unknown qualities when it came to singing, but made up the difference in volume.
     
    With the darkness outside it looked to be a brutal ride home through the storm –– torrents of snow screamed through the night.  The Graftons went first, but the rush of wind was so ferocious that they couldn’t mount their horses. Luke Grafton was blown clear over.  O’Brien, Langtree, and their hands went out to help and dragged the men back into the house.  “We’ve got to get home and take care of our stock and keep and a hearth fire –– otherwise everything will freeze,” said Gordon.” “If you leave now, you’ll be dead before you go a mile –– all of you,” said Hugh.”
     
    Then Charity, the youngest and most devout O’Brien daughter asked if she could say a prayer so that angels might come and guide everyone safely home. 
     
    Angels above me
    Angels below
    Angels around me
    Wherever I go.
     
    Angels cease the wind
    Angels quiet the storm
    Angels guide them home
    Safe and warm.
     
    Finishing her prayer Charity then looked out and pointed at three angels, just barely visible, up in the cottonwoods.  Maybe it was just a trick of light and shadow, but the raging wind and turbulent snow had formed blurry angels.  She called everyone outside to look.  And there they were –– three ethereal forms high in the trees.
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    The wind, in a final burst, dissolved the angels into streaming flakes, and then died away to a faint breeze –– complete silence reigned, and after a moment the moon beamed down from the canyon rim.
     
    The Langtree’s, the Grafton’s and their men hustled out to gather their horses and rigs, yelling, “Merry Christmas and Best To Everyone In The New Year as they got underway – looking up at the limitless stars that dot the vast black dome of the Wyoming sky.
     
    And as the years turned into decades, some worse than others, all those who celebrated that Christmas of 1889 –– in a rough stone house along the Green River –– remembered that moment, when the Snow Angels calmed the storm and saw them home –– and all remembered that time as the best Christmas of their lives.
     
     
    Joseph Ollivier
    December 2017
     
     
    Author’s Note
     
    I have a special place in my heart for the Green River Valley.  In 1947 when I was five years old, my dad opened a hardware store in Big Piney, my uncle owned the South Side Garage, and my Grandfather had the Ollivier Hotel and Grocery.  I learned how to fish from my grandfather, how to shoot from my dad and how to get in trouble from my cousin.  We were playing with matches and burned my dad’s lumberyard to the ground.  We moved the next year, when my dad sold the hardware store to another optimistic entrepreneur.  Everyone wanted credit, but few wanted to pay.
     
    My grandfather did indeed welcome a mail order bride of German heritage after the death of his first wife –– and yes, she had worked in a factory rolling cigars.  Maybe that is what made her so cantankerous.  She generally had a cross word for me and everyone else within her range. 
     
    Many of my teenage summers were spent in Big Piney and in the Salt River Mountains where my granddad had a chinked log cabin along Middle Piney Creek.  I learned how to ride a motorcycle, pump gas, dig footings for a construction company, work in the oil field, haul hay, and even got my Wyoming numbered Social Security Card at fourteen.
     
    I’ve gone back many times, got my fishing license at Burney’s Grocery, and hiked into North Piney Lake to catch native cutthroat trout.

    Once you get out of the small town the range opens up and the distant mountains become closer.  The landscape is much the same as when Daniel Budd and Hugh McKay rode into the valley almost a hundred and fifty years ago. 

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