Nevada Desert Holidays/Christmas/Silver Dollar Snow

Christmas in the Desert

     Decades of mostly dry winters and the concentration of population into small towns hide the effect snow storms had on desert dwellers a generation or so ago.   People in those mountain canyons learned to fear weather in a different way than we do now.  Snow wasn't just an inconvenience, it was
 an obstacle, and sometimes even an insurmountable barrier.  Snowed in had an ominous ring to it.  Snowed in was usually heralded by huge flakes of snow that my mother called silver dollar snow.

    Father's job had ended.  No construction jobs during heavy snow!  Mining had also slowed to a crawl.  All of this would open up in the spring.  For the time being the family lived on what mother made as a teacher.  It was possible not plentiful.  But, being careful of food did not mean that you did not share when someone strayed into the canyon.  An old sheepherder became our unexpected guest in just this way during the first silver dollar snow.

    He looked almost frozen when he stepped into our home.  Frozen, and somewhat
surprised by the number of people he saw seated at the ki
tchen table.  Mom had invited an elderly couple to join us, and, there were plenty of us!  She glanced up, took in the man's condition and put another bowl on the table.  She smiled at him and cut off a large slice of homemade bread to go with the beans.  He nodded and edged into his seat.

    He wasn't very talkative.  But he listened, hanging onto every word, hoarding it like gold.  Silent all through dinner, he thanked Mom at the end and got up to go.  Pops followed him, said something and started to make up a pallet for him on our living room floor.  A moment later, the shepherd opened the door, whistled, and two beautiful shepherd dogs came into the living room.  He and the dogs rolled up in those blankets and all three were snoring before we went to bed.

    He was up long before we were.  Getting dressed, rustling around in a dark morning full of winter hush and the almost whisper the silver dollar snow made as it fell and kept falling.   Not a morning to be up and about.   Finally the last of us made it  out of bed and straggled in for
hot cereal.  A miserable day.  Too dangerous to go out and play.  Mom set us to our school work, 
we made up most of the school, so on bad days she held school at our dining room table.  Occupied we forgot our recent dinner guest.  Our minds tussled instead with the intricacies of the times tables and spelling.
  
 Mom folded up the blankets and quilts clearing the living room after her guest.  She stacked the bedding on the sofa and leaned on it for a moment looking so weary all of us became very silent.   She took a deep breath, frowned, and bent down to pick up a small sheet of paper.  She stared at it for a long time.  She shook her head and took it into the kitchen, giving us her best schoolmarm frown in passing.

    We heard father's, "Well, I'll be damned.  Thoughtful of him."  Though we strained to hear, nothing else was said.  A little later Pops took down his deer rifle and left.  Our best wishes went with him.  His rifle brought the only variety to our diet.  We finished our day's classes and started in on the chores.  In the mountains there are always chores.

    Dinner was beans again.  Good beans, but, it'd been beans for several weeks.  We were more than tired of them.  We ate them and mom's good bread because that was 
what there was.  We didn't complain.  Being sent from the table and missing dinner too unpleasant a fate, with breakfast eons away.  We
  sat 
up at the table eating our dinner quickly and politely.   Afterwards we could play games or read, then off to bed.  The canyon became so dark in winter there was not much incentive to stay up.
 
    We were in bed when father came home.  My brother got up and peered around the door.  Father sat at the kitchen table cleaning his deer rifle, a very satisfied smile on his face.

    "He got something for sure."  My brother whispered to all of us.  "He only smiles like that when he has."

    Sure enough the next night mother made heart stew.  This one had a different flavor.  Not venison, not beef, we weren't sure what, but, it was good, and it definitely was not beans!

    Mother explained the next day.  We'd all heard about some of the ranching families and how they got their start with stock that a family member laid back.  More than one had managed to build up an outfit that way.  A few unbranded younguns or a small herd of sheep young enough to weather through until a relative could come along, gather them up, and put the family brand on them.  A few seasons of "laying back" and the cowboy or sheepherder would quit the large outfit and work his own.

    Our old fellow had left that morning and laid back a few sheep for a large family that had taken him and his dogs in on a cold night.  Appreciation for a good meal, a warm sport by the fire, and even more important, companionship.

    Whenever snow turns to silver dollar flakes, I think of him and his dogs, and how good those meals were.
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