Sunday, October 23, 2016

"WHITEOUT" 1883-1900: Death

The great arc of mountains from Chief Mountain south to Heart Butte stood cold and still on the horizon. Along Badger Creek snow covered everything deeply. In the brush along the creek one rib-racked old cow huddled without pawing for feed. She stood waiting for her fate, tired of fighting it, emptied by the cold and hunger. The snow had fallen for a long time, then thawed, then frozen into a crust, and again had fallen, thawed and frozen, until every step meant sharp edges sawing on the old cow's legs. They would have bled if it hadn't been so cold. Half a dozen ravens waited nearby. Grock. Grock. Their grating cries echoed in the valley. 

Along the ridge high above the frozen creek was a strange long shape like a woodpile, but out of proportion. It was as wide as a person is tall and nearly fifty feet long. Instead of logs, it was made of bodies, Blackfeet bodies. The Neetseetahpee had been dying all winter and the ground was frozen too hard for burying them. Stacked up together, hundreds of them, waited. They had been wrapped in tattered blankets. They were as hard as if they were made of stone. Their belongings were not with them, nor their horses. In the past bodies had been left on high ridges, but always with their things to honor and comfort them. Their horse was killed beside them to so they would have something to ride in the Sand Hills. 

But now this -- just a wind-scoured ridge.  Back then, one cabin stood alone in the valley, two miles from the ridge. A thread of smoke rose from the chimney, a moving pencil- line of gray against the endless snow. In front of the cabin was a trampled yard where people had walked back and forth to get wood but there was no woodpile now. The outhouse had no door -- because it had been burned for heat and drifts would only block the door anyway. No horse was in the small corral, but there had been one recently. 

In the sky stood a pewter sun, a hub in a great wheel of light with smaller suns at each compass point. Caused by high ice in the atmosphere, called a "sun- dog" by some and the wheel of Ezekial's chariot by others, it stood over a prairie that had only known vehicle wheels for a few decades. 

A whisper of wind snaked over the snow, picking up the loose flakes into a waving gauze. The wind rose higher. It might bring thawing -- or it might bring a whiteout blizzard. 

Inside the cabin was almost as cold as outdoors. Everything that could be spared had been burned except one old table. The bed was made of pipe. In it huddled a child, a girl. An old woman stood at the window where frost was so thick that one could only see out by using a finger to melt a hole. She saw that the wind was beginning but she could not see the broken old wagon, the sagging old horse or the man. He had a contract to take bodies up to the top of “ghost ridge.” They depended on the small pay he received. If she and the girl were lucky, he would bring wood and food. They hadn’t eaten for a day. 

They had already begun to call it “Ghost Ridge.” Over a century later the bodies would still have never been buried. No one was quite sure what became of them.  The road-- only ungraded ruts anyway -- went up to the ridge but was interrupted by drifts, so the wagon would follow higher ground across the fenceless prairie, wallowing through where signs of previous trips still showed. The driver would be 
wrapped in an old buffalo coat, a muskrat hat pulled down over his face, his chin sunk in a strip of blanket used for a muffler, so that only his squinting eyes showed. His feet were also wrapped in blanket strips. Someone had stolen his mucklucks when he was drunk in town last time. 

But she didn’t see the wagon. By now there was a ground blizzard, the blowing snow rising to the height of a person so that the sky seemed calm but near the ground was only a seething mass of white. He was late. Maybe he wouldn’t come. Then what? 

The woman stood at the stove, melting snow for water and poking at it with a large tin spoon, when the door crashed in. Without meaning to, by simple reflex, she gripped the spoon like a weapon and lifted it in defense. The little girl on the creaking bed scooted back into the corner and tried to look small. Her eyes flashed in the sudden flooding light through the door. The huge man was crusted white with snow. The old woman saw that he carried nothing but a bottle of whisky. There were no bulges in his pockets from packages of food. 
"Damn horse died!" grunted the man with the slurring voice of a drunk. The girl tried not to gasp. Big tears came to her eyes. She loved the old horse. 

The old woman, looked behind him for telltale tracks and saw only his. She took in the information. “How far away? We could eat it.” 
“You won’t eat this horse! I’m gonna make some money off it. Lucky I had my strychnine with me. I baited it good. Used the last of it. When this storm goes down, we’ll have wolves to skin. A little money!” He treated himself to more whiskey at the thought. 

Bursting into song, he sagged onto the bed. “What’s this?” The girl tried to escape but even drunk he was fast and strong enough to seize her. Grabbing her by the throat, he gave her a big smacking kiss on the face, the smell nearly gagging her. Then as he tried to turn her and pin her on the bed, she bit his hand hard. 

Cursing, he dragged her to the door and threw her out -- barred the door. The old woman fought him but he threw her across the one room of the cabin so that all the wind was knocked out of her. 
"Let her in. She'll die. It's too cold." 

"What do I care? She's not my kid. One more mouth to feed. She's just your pet." He turned on her and shouted, sending a spray of fetid spit over her, "Pay attention to me, y'hear? I'm the only thing that ought to matter to you!" 

She calculated how long the girl could bear the cold outside and whether the man would pass out first. 

"Gonna get rid a her anyway." "What's that?" 

"Gonna get rid a that brat!" 

"How do you mean?" 

"Gonna sell her to the school. They'll pay to have her." 

She knew this was true. The schools paid people who would bring children to be educated. She desperately wanted the girl with her, but she was crafty. "Take her then. Get your money. But they won't pay for her if she's frozen dead." 

He grumbled for a moment, then shrugged, went to the door and roared at the child to return. Then he flung himself down on the bed with his back to them. He still wore his big hide coat and muskrat hat. In a moment he was snoring. 

When she stopped shaking enough to talk again, the girl hissed in a whisper, "Let's kill him." 

"He's mostly French, but he's white. If we kill him, they will hang us." 

She turned back to boiling water while she thought. 

"No one cares about him. He's no good." 

"He's useful. They would miss him when there were bodies to haul."

"Someone else would do it. Everyone is starving. They will do anything for a bit of money or food." 

"Still, they would hang us." The old woman went back to her stove. "Maybe it could be an accident." She thought for a minute and then, pulling an old box of bottles from under the bed, began sorting through them. 

"What are you looking for?" 

The old woman slipped a little old bottle plugged with a scrap of rag into her apron. “Wolf poison. I stole some two weeks ago.” 

Looking at her box of bottles, she realized she could burn the box and tipped out the bottles in a jangle, which roused the drunken man. 

“Hey, old man, you want a hot toddy?” 


“I’ve got some good hot water here, put your whisky in it.” He heaved himself off the bed, went to the door and sent a steaming stream of urine into the cold, dribbling some on the threshold. Then he swung around into the room and focussed on the mug of hot water. He tried to pour whisky into it, but sloshed too much. The old woman helped him, holding his hand. After a few slurps testing the temperature he slugged it all down. 

This put him in a good mood. "Gonna get money for you, mamzelle," he boasted, grabbing the little girl. "And maybe if you clean up a little and grow up some more, I can make a lot more later outta you!" He grabbed her between the legs to show her what he meant. "Those priests are gonna do me a big favor!" 

The old woman said nothing as she broke up her old box, making her rage useful, and stuffed the ragged bits of wood into the stove. 

Now he began to feel the effects of the strychnine, his muscles tightening. The mug spilled onto the floor. He began to writhe. “You poisoned...” But his talk was already unintelligible. His back arched and his legs curled. He thrashed himself onto the filthy floor, puddled with melt from the snow on his own clothes. 

Calmly, the girl and the old woman watched. It was good to kill him, even better that he knew they had done it. His breathing became more labored, then stopped. At about that time the lamp ran out of kerosene and sputtered out. 

In the dark they listened and waited. 

The women spoke Blackfeet between them. "We’ll wait." The girl could barely see the old woman's face and then only because there were northern lights crackling across the sky and reflecting 
off the snow into the cabin. They heard wolves howling. They had found the poisoned horse. 

“Get his clothes off before he goes stiff.” They rolled him from side to side as though they were skinning a buffalo. The coat and hat came off easily, but the clothes underneath were harder. A wave of stink came out of them. 

"Open the door.  We’ll put these clothes out to freeze -- get rid of bugs.” The coat looked like a big animal out there. They searched every pocket but found no food. He was contorted, down to his longjohns. His body hair had grown through the wool, but they cut the underwear off in strips and threw that out the door. 

Now the man -- source of food and heat, misery and mockery -- was naked on the floor, his private parts small and pitiful, his face twisted unrecognizably. It was a temptation to torture him, even though he was dead, to pay back all the beatings he’d given them. The girl kicked him as hard as she could. 

But the old woman said, “Put him outside and let his bugs freeze with him.” It wasn’t easy to drag him, but they managed. They’d handled a lot of animals. 

“Now we rest.” The two huddled together under the blankets and managed to snatch a bit of riddled sleep, dreaming of running horses, spring floods, June grass in the wind. The fire went out while they slept. The wolves stopped howling as the poison killed them. 

Light came slowly. Every time there was an unusual sound, like an aspen up the slope exploding from the cold, or the light changing because a cloud moved over the sun, they jumped and moved closer together. "We got to get out of here." The wood was gone but the woman smashed the table and started a fire with the last of the booze, putting the last of the matches in her pocket. 

In a while the wind began to rise. Soon it was moaning and prying at the little house. "We go. Must be far away when this man is found." 
When they went out to get the frozen clothes, they shook them as hard as they could before they bringing them in, half fancying that some food would fall out of the heavy, stiff folds. None did, but a pepper of fleas and lice lit on the snow. 

They wound strips of longjohn around their feet. The girl put on the huge coat, though it dragged behind her in a way that made them both laugh in spite of everything. The old woman wrapped the blankets around herself. “We look like two bears.” 

The whole time they pretended they couldn’t see the man’s corpse. It was too awful and yet they felt righteous. 

Stepping carefully, they moved away from the cabin and up onto a different ridge, heading towards the mountains. “Can make it to my cousin's by tonight," said the woman. "If they won't keep us, we’ll think of something else. But they will." She thought to herself, “if we can get there,” but didn’t say it for the sake of the girl. 

In a while the wind began to shift from the west to the north again and then northeast. The temperature dropped swiftly and the day's humidity congealed into thick fog. Snow began to fall through it in big flakes. The two women walked slowly now. They had stopped talking to each other. Every gradual curve looked the same. All landmarks had faded away. Even their path behind them began to disappear. 

The white of the sky, the white of the snow, the white of the light -- they amounted to sightlessness as much as pitch dark. 
"We are lost," admitted the woman. As they went on, the day began to close. "Should see lights, but I don’t see none." 

In the darkening whiteness something large took shape. They had came to a familiar stone, a huge buffalo- sized boulder left by ancient glaciers. "Aaahhh!" cried the woman with relief. "Now I know where we are. Road just over there." 

In a moment they could feel the ruts of the road under their feet, so deep that they nearly turned their ankles. But their minds began to wander. It seemed as though many others were walking along with them, through the snowfall and nightfall. The woman thought she recognized a few of them. She was growing very tired and it cheered her up to have them with her. But they began to fall and it was more and more difficult to get up. 

Then they were alone again. "Oh, no," cried the girl. 

"What?" It was hard to stop and focus on the girl.

"The big buffalo rock again! We walk in a circle!"

Sure enough. They had approached it from a different angle this time, but it was the same rock. 

Stupidly, she stared at the boulder. Then she walked to it and put her hand on the grainy surface to make sure it was really there. It was hard to concentrate. She had almost forgotten what it was they were doing out there, why they were walking in the snow. She thought maybe they ought to eat, but when she looked down at herself she realized that she wasn't carrying anything. The girl wasn't either. They must have forgotten the food. 

They were very tired and without really making a decision, they sat down together with their backs against the rock. Cold snow still fell on them, but it was less lonely against this buffalo iniskum, this sacred object. She thought she ought to sing or pray and even began a little bit. "Natoosee! Keepahtahkee!  Stumik sah toe see..." But then she forgot.

The night closed down around them. Their body heat left them 
slowly. Their minds dimmed to a tiny point.  “We are dying,” thought the old woman, the girl heavy against her. 

But what they thought was darkness opened up and before them was a great glowing cavern. Inside was a woman wearing a white buffalo robe, or maybe it was that she herself was a white buffalo. 

She beckoned to them. They felt great peace, stood, threw off their coverings easily, and entered hand-in-hand, warm at last. So this is where the buffalo went when they disappeared! In the deep grass they grazed as they always had. 

No bones were ever found, though someone was very pleased to find the big heavy coat. The blankets were too threadbare to trouble with and the muskrat hat had blown away . Once someone who passed by in a snowstorm claimed he heard singing. 

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