South Dakota Badlands[break]February 1976
Kate Turning Hawk knew she’d stayed too late in town after shopping for potatoes, kerosene and a load of firewood. She’d stopped for coffee at Sitting Bears before the trip twenty miles back to the reservation, and before she knew it, the sun was gone and the temperature below zero, even though it wasn’t yet five o’clock.
Her relatives begged her to stay over – it was too dark and dangerous to drive through the Badlands at night. But Camp Crazy Horse was out of fuel and her husband Alex was in Eagle Nest waiting for her to pick him up after his Tribal Law and Order meeting.
She laughed and told them she’d be okay, she was a good driver now, used to reservation roads and South Dakota weather. She zipped up her hooded snowmobile suit, wrapped a wool scarf around her neck and pulled on wool-lined gloves. Besides, the snow had stopped, and the roads were crisp and clear.
She shifted their old Ford pickup into four-wheel drive, waved, and headed out of town. Overhead the stars shone bright and far away in the black night. But as soon as she turned north and headed for Redstone Basin, the stars disappeared amidst clouds of swirling snow whipped by wind straight down from Canada.
Damn! She hated ground blizzards! So tricky you didn’t know you were in one until out on the open prairie, where the gusts whipped loose snow horizontal across the road, obliterating everything with frozen white breath.
The wind shook the pickup, even though it was loaded with firewood. Fine snow pelted into the windshield, clumping on the wipers. She flicked the wipers off, useless, and flicked the brights to dim and drove blind into the gray wall of wind and snow.
The blacktop was there, she knew, just disappeared, so she concentrated on the faint dotted lines in the middle of the road. She drove on, plunged down into Redstone Basin and past the reservation line at the river.
She could make it through the Badlands no matter how much snow blew in through the rust holes in the floorboards, just watch the center line, slow down coming into Dead Man’s Curve, and she’d make it back to Alex and on home to Crazy Horse Camp.
Alex had warned her to be careful here, told her how many cars had wrecked at the turn, how wanaghi – ghosts with energy like giant magnets — pulled careless Indians off into the deep gullies where they crashed and died.
It wasn’t ghosts, though, that made Dead Man’s Curve dangerous, just a sharp narrow bend in the road where even the truckers’ semis wrecked.
Through the slanting snow she saw a dark shape in the middle of the road, an elongated shape, waving. Another drunk Indian stumbling home from the Kadoka bar, if he didn’t get run off the road by rednecks or freeze first.
She slowed to a stop, but kept the pickup running. Alex always rescued drunks on this stretch, bringing them back to the res where it was safe, even though he hated alcohol fumes in the cab. He’d brush the drunks off with his eagle feather before he let them out in Eagle Nest, praying for their lost souls.
Even without Alex, she couldn’t pass up someone who might freeze to death, so she reached across the cab, opened the far door and yelled, “Come on, hurry up and get in!”
The pickup engine throbbed; she called again. He was so slow he must need help. She pulled the brake up, climbed over the gearshift and out the open door. A gust blew her backwards toward the rear of the pickup, where in the swirling snow she saw the figure floating at the edge of the gully, one hand raised, one knee bent, ready to flee.
She shivered in her snowmobile suit and pulled the hood tighter, brushing loose hair out of her eyes. This did not feel right. Drunks caught in a blizzard always were eager to catch a ride. They didn’t run away.
“Don’t be afraid!” she said in a low voice. “I’ll give you a ride.” She reached out her glove and watched in the glow of her headlights – oh, no — as he backed over the edge of the snow
bank, slipped and vanished.
She ran to the bank where he’d been standing and stared down into the gully thirty feet below. Darkness. Was their flashlight in the pickup? Were the batteries dead? She ran back, felt underneath the front seat, and with a sigh of relief pulled out the flashlight and banged it on. A dim beam shot forth into the night, which was better than nothing.
She braced herself against the wind, walked back to the road’s edge and shone the beam down below. There was enough light to make out the man sprawled out, flat and unnatural, on a tableland of grass stubble blown free of snow by the biting wind.
“Halloo—” This time she wasn’t surprised when he didn’t answer. The fall probably had knocked him unconscious. She’d have to climb down to see if she could bring him around. She began kicking steps into the snow bank, making a downwards path.
Then it hit her: no footprints. Even though she was partly snow-blind waving the dimmest of flashlights, she couldn’t have missed his tracks. She swung the beam over the drift and down the embankment.
The ground blizzard couldn’t have blown footprints away this fast. Somehow the man hadn’t left any. It was strange, but she knew she wasn’t crazy because there was a dark form lying face-down on the icy ground below.
She slid down the embankment twenty feet closer, to a ledge. The man was smaller than he’d seemed earlier. Her flashlight picked out leather boots with worn-down heels, faded jeans, a dark pea coat and then a dark wool cap. Long black hair swirled around the shoulders, some strands loose in the wind, some iced into the snow. A Long-hair Indian cowboy.
She pushed through the snowdrift at the bottom of the gully until she reached the hair, shining blue-black in the dim light. Beneath it, sewn onto the big coat was a Red Power fist on top of an upside-down US flag – the American Indian Movement flag.
So he was an AIM warrior, too — a Brother. Her flashlight traced the embroidered letters: Wounded Knee ’73. She trembled. There weren’t many of these jackets around, since there were only two hundred or so AIM warriors inside Wounded Knee during the Occupation. She probably knew him.
But who, and what was he doing here now? She shivered, even though the wind stopped for a moment, as if it were frozen, too. In the stillness the night turned grainy, and the black dark browned at the edges.
She felt surrounded by an older wind, swept into the center of the old sepia photograph that always haunted her — Chief Bigfoot frozen in a gully at the Massacre of Wounded Knee, the Smithsonian one of him in his death pose.
There he was before her, Bigfoot sprawled on his back, one knee bent in surrender, one arm up to ward off blows, his lifeless eyes staring into the cold sky.
Nothing had changed in a hundred years. She shivered and shook off the memory. She felt as if she’d gone far away, even though she knew by the flickering flashlight that only a few seconds had passed. Damn, it was the dim flashlight, fooling her with a time warp into long ago.
This man before her had minutes ago stood in the center of the road up above, and besides, he was much smaller than Bigfoot, and he was lying face down. Still, his arms reached out, half-frozen in the snow, as if he were trying to escape from her by digging deep into the icy crust.
But she wouldn’t harm him, he must know that, and he must get up, even if he’s hurt. Or, because he’s so still, maybe he’s been knocked unconscious, and she’d have to haul him up and out to the pickup. No one could survive this cold, not even if he were pickled in alcohol, he’d lose his fingers and toes.
She stepped closer, bent down and grabbed his shoulder, feeling it stiff under the coat. She dropped the shoulder and stood up, confused. This couldn’t be the man who’d flagged her down with his arms flapping. He was cold and stiff. Stiff and dead. Dead like Bigfoot.
But she had to make sure. At least check for a pulse. She bent down again and turned him over.
Frost coated the lips and cheeks. Kate glanced at the face and gasped. Not a Long-hair Indian cowboy, but a girl – no, a small woman! An Indian woman, yes, with a stiff open mouth, frozen eyelashes, and dark empty eyes. Kate shut her eyes, dropped the shoulder and fell to her knees.
A dead Indian woman. She’d never seen a dead person before, stiff like the carcass of a frozen pony she’d once found in a pasture. She remembered, Indian way, that you weren’t supposed to touch the dead. Alex said the dead could take you away, take your mind away to the Spirit World. But she didn’t believe that. She shook her head and opened her eyes.
The ground blizzard swirled about her, whooshing fine snow across the woman’s body. The face looked like someone she knew but hadn’t seen in awhile. Kate’s hands trembled and she began to cry.
A dead Indian woman she almost recognized, except who could remember what she looked like then, flashing her eyes and flicking her long hair back, nothing like this frozen-cheeked fish-mouthed – face. Not her.
Not since Minneapolis, not since the Red Schoolhouse run by AIM, not since they taught the kids reading and math, fixed up a van and took them on field trips to anthropological museums to study their stolen Indian heritage. Years ago. Gone missing.
Kate rocked back and forth, keening. Finally she forced herself to look down. Her tears had fallen unheeded on the woman’s face. She took off her glove – it didn’t matter now — and gently brushed them off cheeks carved of ice.
Her old AIM friend, her Minneapolis buddy, how could she be here, frozen in the snow like Bigfoot? Yet even in the dark, crouched over the body, Kate knew it was Joanna Joe.
She wanted to cradle her old friend, warm her back to life with her own body heat, take her hand and pull her back to the world of the living. Even in a ground blizzard, such things must be possible.
But as she knelt there gathering her strength, she felt her own body stiffen. The cold prairie seeped through her snowmobile suit all the way into her bones. Something else was wrong.
She shone the flashlight beam over Joanna Joe and stared at the ragged edges of the navy pea coat sleeves. The she shuddered, icy cold. There was no use to reach for Joanna’s wrist to check for her pulse.