MY COUSIN JESSIE
By: Verna (Cook) Weatherly
Jessie and I were always very close as our mothers were sisters. Even our birthdays were only two days apart, but I was one year older.
I often stayed with Jessie and her mother and father, Uncle Bill and Aunt Lilace, whose last name was Nicely. They lived on several ranches around Prairie City. Uncle Bill was a hard working logger, and he was very prosperous.
Jessie was a little shy and reserved, but later she grew into a wonderful self-taught lady trick rider who showed unusual bravery and athletic ability.
When I was about seven years old I visited their log cabin ranch on Jeff Davis Creek along the old road from Dixie Summit to Prairie City. From Dixie Summit this old road turned southwest along the mountain, passing through a maze of gully and forest. Occasionally you get a glimpse of the vast meadows of the John Day valley, setting under the ever present Strawberry Mountain.
Frequently as you looked out of the car you could peer into a deep ravine where you could see old relics of rusted cars, which had met an earlier fate. This was the early 1940's.
After driving a couple of miles, we finally arrived at the barbed wire gate on the left of the road of my Aunt and Uncle's ranch. We parked the car, got out, walked over and unhooked the gate. It opened onto a lovely golden meadow in front of a grass-lined hillside. In the bottom of the meadow was a shallow Jeff Davis Creek.
We walked from the road onto a grass centered road, and within a few hundred yards, came to a bridge made of planks and loose rusty bolts, which was used for hay wagons. The bridge traversed the dry creek, and immediately on the other side was the small log cabin and weathered barn.
The cabin had a large main room with two high double beds, dressers and other furniture. On the north side of the cabin was a small kitchen and porch. As you stepped off the small porch and to the right was a tall silver cream separator with two large bowls stacked and arranged in a way my Aunt understood. It was through these large bowls in the cream separator, my Aunt poured the fresh milk from the cows she had just milked. One bowl was filled with cream, the other with skim milk. She used this fresh milk in all her cooking.
My Aunt was a very good housekeeper and cook. The hired ranch hand sure liked her cooking. One afternoon, after my Aunt had prepared a good supper, Jessie and I sat on an open back porch waiting to eat at a small table with the hired hand. This man was a true "cowpoke." He was tall and very skinny, with a large mass of hair which looked like unraveled rope. He rarely spoke and showed very little interest in anything except food, which he called "vittles." As close as we were I don't think he even knew we were sitting at the table. He was such a character we could hardly take our eyes off him.
We sat, one on each side of him, watching him maneuvering the plentiful bowls of food my Aunt had just prepared. His long arms and pointed elbows moved at a high speed as he loaded his plate with large spoonfuls of splattering food, all heaped together. He broke biscuits over this rare concoction and then poured a large portion of gravy over the entire mess and vigorously stirred it up. It was only then, without looking up, he began to gulp it down.
We were so caught up in his remarkable enthusiasm for the food, we to heaped large spoonfuls of food on our plates, broke the biscuits, and before Jessie and I fully realized what had happened, we mimicked his every move, gravy and all. "This was fun," we had thought, but then we just sat staring at the heap of food we had just stirred up. Aunt Lilace's lovely food now turned into barnyard gruel. We suddenly lost all interest in the whole thing and could not even once lift the spoon to our mouths. Not only did we not try this again, we both refused to sit next to the hired hand. It was too much.
One warm spring day I went for another visit. With the help of my Aunt Lilace, we decided to make little cradles for our baby dolls out of small Quaker Oats cartoons. The lullaby that inspired our idea was:
In a tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
Aunt Lilace helped us cut out a place in the carton for our dolls to lay. It was difficult keeping the lid in place. We covered the carton with ribbons and fabric, then added little blankets. With a heavy twine, we tied the cradles carry our dolls up in the top of the tree which stood next to the silver cream separator. It was a pretty sight.
Along the back of the cabin was a high grassy hill with a steep incline. Crossing diagonally from the base of the hill, in a southeast direction to the tops was a well worn path. Directly along this path, halfway up the hill, sat a chicken coop. This always depressed me; why would a chicken coop set halfway up a hill? The structure was made of rough boards, and due to setting on the side of the hill, the back of the coop had to be longer. A fence made of chicken wire ran further up the hill. Grains had been scattered inside the fence, and with their heads and beaks down, the chickens clucked and cooed as they plucked each grain from the ground. This rocky sandy part of the hill felt warms as we walked by.
Many years later I was told the same diagonal path crossed the top of the hill and lead to my mother's family homestead. Bob Pierce, her stepfather, and her mother Lena, had lived there, along with her brothers and sisters Lilace, Betty, Calvin, Glen and Wayne. I am sure they had crossed the diagonal trail many times on their way to school, either by foot or horseback.
One early fall evening Aunt Lilace, Jessie and I walked from the porch into the cabin. As we entered, it suddenly grew dark. Only soft forms of furniture guided us through the toom. My Aunt found a small glass lantern with chimney and wick which she carefully lit. Immediately shadows formed a the edge of the glowing light. Everything seemed gilded in some mysterious way. The old varnished logs of the room glistened and created a space in the frame of radiant quiet. The ceiling gathered up the rays, while a stream of cool dark air drifted around our feet. A light a person cannot be, yet it commanded this room to be a heaven for me.