My ears perk when the octogenarian rancher who still works his cows from horseback opens his story with, “He’s one of the toughest guys I ever knew.”
The story he tells is of a cowboy back in the fifties or sixties or sometime I see in black and white down in Colorado. It only matters that it’s Colorado because most of the stories told here are of here. Here is this place. This place is the Tongue River Valley in Eastern Montana. More specifically, this place sings a tune of sprawling ranches just turned green with the new growth of spring. This place speaks pastoral in buttes and plateaus and springs that turn to streams that connect and flow through the ranches and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation alike. This place is more than the coal underneath it. This place is more than anything the people who want to take that coal out of the ground have the capacity to recognize. Here people speak in plural pronouns and ancestors and descendents carry as much weight as the living.
The story here right now around the kitchen table comes from a time before synthetic fibers, when rope coiled up quick. The guy in the story threw his rope to catch a cow, but he thought he missed. So, he let his slack rope wrap about his wrist. He was horseback, and something spooked his horse, or maybe his horse simply turned. Anyhow, the guy’s horse moved real quick, and in doing so the guy discovered he had in fact caught the cow by the front leg. The rope snapped taut before he could think about freeing his wrist. The man was pulled right off his horse. When his friend came to his aid on the ground, the injured man gave his hand a flick, and it flopped over backward, hanging by threads from the rest of his arm.
“Cut her right off,” He said. His friend went for help. On his return he had to hunt down the injured man who had walked a quarter mile down to a lake to stick his head in the water and thus keep from passing out. After he healed up some, with the surgery to sew back his hand a failure, the man went down to Texas where he rode one handed until one day he got bucked and broke his other arm. He wired back to Montana; could they send him some money to get home?
In my bedroom that night I switch between trying to see my hand in front of my face in the complete blackness of a moonless night, and wondering if there was a moral to the story of the man who lost his hand. I fall asleep with the thought that these people are tough. They’ll take a blow and stand back up. Then they’ll live on and on forever in the retelling of it all.
The next morning comes early when I head into town to join a tour highlighting sites of cultural significance that the proposed coal train could impact. About forty cowboys and Indians pile on a bus beside train and coal representatives and government talking heads.
I watch some of the prettiest country I’ve ever laid eyes on roll past the bus window as the bus turns onto a gravel road lined with horses and cows and long views. We stop at the edge of a property the proposed route will transect. The rancher who owns the property waits for us beside a group of trucks. For the next hour he will stand at the front of the bus and tell us about teepee rings, burial sites, rock art, and battles upon the land where his family has lived and run cattle for generations. But now, he’s waiting for the train representatives to vacate the bus. He has let them know that they are not welcome on his property nor are they welcome to hear what he has to say today.
Briefly, we all pile off the bus to look at a site where the tracks will cut between two sacred burial grounds. Everyone is a bit cold in the spring clouds and wind, so we don’t linger long. I notice the woman from the Surface Transportation Board wasn’t sent away with the unwelcome ones, probably because on paper she works for the government. I bare uncomfortable witness to the moment the woman approaches our rancher guide. She goes like a moth to light towards his silk neckerchief that’s reserved for cold days, his riding boots, and his sweat-stained broad rimmed hat that when pulled low over his blue eyes turns his large mustache into his most prominent facial feature. The government woman sidles up to the rancher and asks him if she can take his picture. After all, he looks straight out of the movies.
Back on the bus, one of the Northern Cheyenne who organized the tour says into the bus’s PA, “We’re sitting on a gold mine of cultural resources here.”
I think, “Gold mine or coal mine?”
I wonder who else feels the same flip of the stomach that accompanies this thought. I wonder of the few who have no reaction, how they can sit on their BlackBerries and neglect to look out the window.
In this way I bounce along through the day. When the shadows grow long and deepen, a few of us gather in a room at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Montana. I am tired in the desperate way that comes with an extended long day and the dread of the day to come that promises to be longer still. And the lights are too bright, and I already got up to go to the bathroom once just for a walk. It’s that feeling combined with an intense desire to act with respect and offer my full attention. Because the women gathered here are here to meet with a lawyer to discuss how to reclaim land that was taken from their ancestors by the US government.
On my bathroom break I pass posters that read, “Think Indian.” Back in the classroom while three middle aged and aging Northern Cheyenne women and two of their daughters talk with a lawyer while two husbands sit at tables in the back corner and eat off of paper plates, I look at another poster. This one shows the Cheyenne alphabet next to a map of the dispersal of the horse in North America. There are less than ten people in the room. The Cheyenne alphabet is composed of fourteen characters. I don’t remember when horses hit the United States, but it wasn’t that long ago. The women have worked their whole lives to regain what the government took from their ancestors. They speak in terms of descendents. I should be grateful the battlefield has moved into this florescent light classroom and later will go to the courts, but I can’t help but think it’s time the descendents get to go home and rest.
The next morning I am worn out with meetings under florescent lights and bumpy bus rides brimmed over with heartfelt testimonials. So, I lay low at the old storyteller’s ranch. First thing after sourdough flapjacks, the ranch manager takes me out to feed cows. As he pitches hay I stand by the truck. The cows get skittish over me, and the cowboy coos to them something about getting to know more people, and needing to be socialized. With that small chore done we go back to the house where I make ready to take a walk all by my lonesome. I walk to a sunny spot above a sandstone outcropping, much like the one a ranch over where Crazy Horse etched a picture of his dream in which he predicted his own murder. When I walk back to the ranch house after the wind drives me from my revelries, a truck passes me on the two-track. I think it’s the cowboy I know passing through on cow business, so I wave and wait for a window to roll down. When one finally does, two men peer out from under big hats and raised eyebrows. “You mean to be walking?”
I do mean to be walking. I enjoy watching the red-tails spin through the sky, and I am grateful for the chance to offer a bottle of milk to a calf with a sick mom. The calf is three days old and strong enough to pull the bottle from my hand. His knees are knobby, but he’s sturdy and steady on his feet. When he is done eating I leave the sun and the wind to wash the bottle in the kitchen sink. The old rancher who told the story of the man who lost his hand is glad for my company and talks to me from his seat at the kitchen table. He tells me he is tired of fighting. He’s been fighting the coal companies his whole life. Out the window over the sink, I can see the smoke stacks from the coal fired power plant in the town of Colstrip to the north.
Finally, after what amounts to one full day and a night, I leave for my own home that hardly pulls me the way the Tongue River already does. On the ride from Lame Deer to Billings in the late evening light we pass the monument that marks the end of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand. Here again history lives on close at hand. I look out to where the prairie meets mountain. Like anyone else, I am a point on a line of descendents, and today I ride in a car on a highway where road cuts reveal seams of black coal.