George and Ida Ferguson, my great grandparents, were second generation cattle ranchers in eastern Montana. Mom kept a framed picture of them on the fireplace mantel when I was a kid. It was taken in their parlor and you can just make out a piano behind Ida with a vase of cut wild flowers on it. They were dressed for the occasion, she in a calico dress, her long auburn hair wrapped around her head in a twirled braid, he in a white, snap button shirt, vest and gray Stetson hat. The flat prairie land of the Yellowstone River valley can just barely be glimpsed through the billowing curtains of a window in the background.
I spent countless hours as a kid imagining what their life in nineteenth century cattle country would have been like: herding longhorns, busting broncos and mending fences. My tastes back then ran toward cowboys and Indians, so their romantic love was certainly not on my radar, but the true fact of the matter was that their love for each other was known far and wide.
“That’s right, Stevie,” Mom used to tell me, “They were hard workers and humble, salt of the earth people, busy with chores from dawn to dusk. But in the evenings they made time for making music. Ida played piano and sang while George accompanied her on fiddle. I’m told that their songs brought joy to even the crustiest cowhand’s heart.”
As a kid, that kind of talk was embarrassing to hear and often turned my ears red. But as I grew older, I started to imagine a different scenario, one in which they not only lived the hard life of cattle ranchers on the western frontier, but also found it within themselves to love deeply while creating beauty and harmony through their music in juxtaposition to that rugged land.
Years later I met Janie and we fell in love. While we were dating, I talked often about George and Ida. Did I idealize them? Maybe. But Janie told me she thought it was sweet they loved each other the way they did and that was good enough for me. It got me thinking that maybe she and I were kindred spirits, like my great grandparents were.
The summer after we married, Janie and I took a driving trip west to the great plains to see firsthand the land of my great grandparents. We ended up parking our car outside the small town of Willow Creek, Montana, and spent the day hiking rolling pastureland amid pungent sage, prickly cactus and golden fields of wildflowers, kept company by prairie dogs, meadowlarks and a small herd of pronghorn antelope.
By sundown we had made our way to the top of Buffalo Butte, the highest point of land in Stillwater County, and the overlook where George and Ida’s ashes had been scattered. The sun was low in the west, the sky exploding in a fiery orange from the last light of day, the land stretching out to the horizon where we could just barely make out the shadowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The peace and quiet was immense, so quiet I swear I could hear both of our hearts beating. I said to Janie, my voice a whisper, “Legend has it that you can still hear my great grandparent’s music if wind is right.”
Janie turned from viewing the scene spread out before us and took in a deep breath of fragrant prairie air. Then she took my hand, her smile as wide as the big sky above us, and said, “I’m so happy you brought me, Steve. I love you. I love being here with you.” Then she leaned in and kissed me.
“I love you, too, Janie,” I told her. “Forever and all time.” And we embraced, holding each other tight, our bodies molding into one.
Then, out of nowhere, we heard it. Faint strains from a piano, a fiddle and then a soft voice singing. We stood together, our love growing stronger with every note we heard, listening to the heartfelt music played by my great grandparents, songs of love I somehow knew Janie and I would carry with us for the rest of our lives. Songs from my great grandparents brought to us from them on that gentle prairie wind.