A couple of nights ago, I stepped clear of the automatic sliding doors at a local convenience store and back into the darkness of the evening. It wasn’t late, but as everyone knows, darkness comes early in the soon to be winter months. I had taken only one step toward my car when I was stopped by a middle aged man. He spoke to me, but I didn’t understand what he said. His face was lowered toward the pavement and his voice was low.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t hear what you said.”
He looked up at me and I could see the pain I caused him, simply by asking him to repeat what he had said. He took a deep breath and managed to look at my knees. I bent forward and between the two of us we managed to communicate.
“Excuse me,” he stammered, “I hate to ask you this, but I need a little help. Can you let me have a few dollars to buy some gas? I’m parked right there, next to the pump, but I ain’t got any money.”
I looked in the direction he motioned and sitting under the weird lights of the gas pump island was a four door sedan that had more than one color. Most of it appeared to be a shade of dark blue, but the right front fender was a lime green and the front bumper was white. It had seen better days.
“How far you going?”
“I’ve got to get home, I live in Bolivar.”
I nodded understanding. The town of Bolivar was only about thirty miles away. I thought the car could make it that far, with some gas, of course.
I removed my wallet from my back pocket and opened it. I had five one dollar bills. I looked at him. It was my turn to take a deep breath.
“Look, I only have five bucks. It’s not going to help much, but I’ll split it with you.”
He smiled a small and still embarrassed smile as I counted out three for him and I kept two. He seemed overly grateful.
“I hope it helps and I hope it will attract a little more for you.”
“Thank you,” he said, “Most people have just ignored me, told me a flat “No,” or told me to go away.”
“Best of luck to you.”
“Thank you, again.”
He turned to return to his car and almost bumped into a man advancing toward the store from the gas island. I had not moved, as I was pocketing my wallet. The man looked at me with a glare as he passed.
He was shorter than me by a head and he resembled what a wooden barrel would be if it had arms and legs. He wore a cowboy hat, with a stockman crown, a western shirt, boot slacks and brown boots. His hair was extremely curly and formed a wreath around where the hat sat on his head. It was the color of dry cement. I don’t know why, but as he passed, I thought, “he’s not a cowboy, he’s a sheep farmer.” I was just amusing myself.
The sliding doors opened and he stopped and called to the two clerks at the register, “There’s some guy out here begging for money. He hit me up and after I told him no, he pestered everyone at the pumps.”
In that moment, my mind took me on a time travel trip. I was no longer in Springfield Missouri on a cool October evening, I was in western Wyoming and the year was 1971.
It was a week before the Fourth of July, a Sunday, and two friends and I decided to cross the border into Wyoming. We went in search of the good firecrackers; the ones illegal in Idaho. We took one of my friend’s Camaro. It was orange and ran like a scalded dog, as they used to say. I rode shotgun in the front passenger seat and the other friend had the rear seat to himself.
We scored the firecrackers and bought a few dozen cherry bombs and M-80’s. We were set and headed back to Idaho, when the political realities of the time hit us.
My driving friend turned to me and said, “I don’t think we have enough gas to get home.”
Due to the instabilities in the Middle East, the majority of gas stations didn’t sell gas on Sundays and in that part of Wyoming, gas stations open or closed, were in short supply.
“No sweat,” I proclaimed, “we’ll just stop at one of the ranches and buy a few gallons. We have the money.”
If you have never been there, Wyoming, between Kemmerer and Little America does not have many trees. What it has is sheep. We pulled into the driveway on the first ranch we came too. The house was big, made of brick and the outbuildings were all made of the same materials and the same colors. It was an impressive place. I got out of the car, walked to the door, and rang the bell.
A man came to the door, scowled at me and asked what I wanted. I told him our plight, pointed in the direction of the gas tank on stilts next to one of the shields and asked if we could buy a few gallons.
“No. I need the gas for my own use.” He closed the door. I won’t write what I mentally called him and returned to the car.
We stopped at four other ranches and were starting to get a little concerned as the needle edged closer and closer to empty. Two of the ranches flatly told us “no,” one didn’t answer the door and the last threatened to call the Sheriff on us. We were past desperate when we spotted a small, run down house about a hundred yards off of the highway.
We pulled over next to the dirt road that served as a driveway and parked next to the mailbox, which was one of the oversized tin ones. We debated if we should go down there as by all appearances, the place could be deserted. We got out of the car and heard lambs bleating.
We left the car where it was and the three of us walked the hundred yards to the house. We were so low on gas we didn’t want to use it to go where we could just as easily walk. As I said, the house was small; I’d guess maybe four or five rooms and small rooms at that. Some of it was covered with the black tar paper that was used back then, some of it was just faded plywood. The windows and their sills were a mixed lot, a few windows had white sills, but there were others with brown. It was obvious the house was made out of what was available. The outbuildings were mostly made of plywood with sheet-metal roofs. Two of the buildings were rolling stock box cars from the railroad with the wheels and axles removed. They sat on small stacks of railroad ties. Next to one of the converted boxcars stood a fifty-five gallon drum with a hand pump inserted and attached.
We tried the door, no answer. We walked toward the sheds and there must have been close to fifty lambs; all of them looking at us, all of them bleating and not one of them with a docked tail.
We were discussing taking some gasoline and leaving a note and some money on the drum when an old woman walked around from the back of the house. She had a board across her shoulders and at the ends, slightly swinging from half inch cotton rope were two large tubs. She reminded me of the statue of justice, except she wasn’t blindfolded and she didn’t hold her burden with an outstretched arm.
In the tubs were dozens of glass soda bottles. I think every major brand of soda was represented; Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, RC, Dr. Pepper and a few not so widely known. Each bottle had a rubber nipple stretched over the mouth and each bottle was filled with milk.
We startled her, but she smiled, “Hi, you’re just in time to feed the babies.”
We all smiled back and asked how we could help. That was to only invitation she needed, each of us was given five or six bottles and told to go to it. All of us were raised around baby animals so we knew what we were in store for, but those little lambs almost knocked each of us over.
After we finished, she climbed over the plywood fence, removed a leather glove and offered us her hand, “Hi,” she said, I’m known around here as the lamb lady.”
As we shook hands, our expression asked why, and she told us that when the big farms had lambs that the mother sheep would not accept, for whatever reason, they gave the orphans to her.
It wasn’t until after the feedings, when we were talking that I had a chance to really look at her. She was small framed, hunched over a little bit and her skin, what little we could see, was leather brown. She wore an old felt hat that allowed some grey hair to show. I’d still bet money she had wadding of some kind taking up some of the size. Her eyes were happy and when she smiled, she showed us a few places where teeth had been. She lived alone and didn’t tell us if she had ever been married; in her world it was just her and her lambs.
We had been there close to an hour when we finally told her why we had stopped. Before we had even finished our tale of woe, she interrupted and said, “Of course you can have some gas. It’s right there in the drum. I don’t have a five gallon can, but you can use five of those gallon milk bottles.”
She pointed to a pile of glass milk bottles and I asked why she was keeping them.
She looked at me, smiled and with pointed finger for emphasis told me they were worth a nickel a piece and she planned to collect, once she remembered to take them to town.
We filled five one gallon bottles and offered to pay her. She refused to take it. We picked up a brick and used it as a paperweight to hold some bills on the top of the drum. She told us to leave the empty gallon bottles next to the mailbox, saying she would pick them up the next time she checked her mail. After we had emptied the gasoline into the Camaro, we put the bottles in the truck and drove them back to where we had gotten them. She was busy feeding more lambs when we drove into her yard, so when we waived, all she managed was a smile and a nod of her head, as her arms were full of soda bottles. She was there when we pulled back onto the asphalt that would soon become Interstate 80.
Over the years, I have driven through that part of Wyoming and every time I remember the lamb lady. This past summer, I told my dad about her was we travelled east bringing him out to live with me. Her place is gone now, of course. I couldn’t find where it was if I had a week to search. The new interstate changed the terrain along that route, but I still remember her and think of her from time to time.
Life is amazing. Every once in a while we are offered a chance to be the one person another needs to get through their day. I’m afraid that all too often, because of the pressures of our own lives, we fail to recognize those times.
I watched the man with the concrete colored hair walk passed me back to his vehicle. He had a superior smile on his face as he looked at me and muttered something about how the clerks should call the police. I looked at the man who had asked for help. He was standing next to his car, waiting for another customer to pull in. I pointed at him and loudly asked, “What pump are you at?”
He said, “Me?”
“Yeah, what pump are you at?”
He looked at the pump and then back at me, “Pump number nine.”
“Stay there, I’m sending gas to you.”
I stepped inside the store and looked at the two confused faces of the clerks. I removed my debt card from my wallet, and gave it to one of them.
“Send ten dollars of gas to pump number nine.”
“Yeah, pump nine and don’t call the cops. He’ll be on his way in a minute.”
The clerk ran the transaction and returned my card, “Ten dollars’ worth of gasoline at two dollars a gallon,” he said. It dawned on me I bought the man five gallons.
I stepped through the doors once again, waved with a fully outstretched arm and pointed at the pump. “Coming at you,” I called. Even with the weird lighting over the pumps, I could see his grin. “Thank you,” he called.
I got into my car, but I wasn’t thinking about the man, I was remembering the lamb lady and I thanked her one more time from the three of us.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. We all have a chance to help another. All of my books now support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Now would be a good time to buy one. Thank you.