It doesn’t look much like Christmas here on the Cheyenne River, but you can feel it gathering beyond the northern horizon. The landscape is brown and cold. Below zero this morning, but sunny. It is a good morning to sit at the word processor and stare out the French doors at the river a mile down-country. The buffalo are across the river in the roadless area. I know right where they are: at the head of Little Corral Draw, where the drainage makes a wide swing to the North. In that country the land breaks up into huge pedestals with eroded edges. Cattle have a lot of trouble climbing those fortresses and as a result there are places where the grass has not been touched since the buffalo were extirpated, a hundred and forty years ago. The buffalo are up in that rough country, grazing the tops, lounging under the lips of ridges – in the bright sunlight and out of the wind. They have been up there for a week, still putting on autumn fat, observing their version of Thanksgiving and waiting for Christmas.
We call that thousand acre piece of pasture Curly Billville because that is were Curly Bill, our oldest and largest bull, spends the entire winter. The cows and calves move out later but Curly stays. It is a great spot and I suppose that is why, with a little searching, a horseman can find the ruins of a homestead on the ridge to the north – in the bright sunlight and out of the wind. I’ve managed to find that crumbled-in dugout and the planed boards that must have been a little corral or pig sty. My horse’s name is Sundog and you would think he’d love a little break on that hillside, but tied to the knurled cedar tree that must have been the homesteader’s only shade, he is always antsy, throwing his head against the reins and pawing at the healed front yard. I spend a fair amount of time trying to imagine what that family went through up their in Curly Billville, I guess at their dreams and speculate what finally drove them out.
The sons and daughters of that family are probably vegetable farmers in Colorado or merchants on the Oregon coast. I wonder what the hell they were thinking when they found that hillside, five miles from the nearest neighbor, thirty miles from the nearest town and no road to get there. There may have been a little more rain in the spring when they chose the spot, but it dried up soon enough, like it always does out here. There was very little timber for cooking or warmth and the old accounts say they burned the buffalo chips from the herds that had been killed only a few years before. It must have been ghostly finding such undeniable signs of the great herds. And ghoulish to steal the energy those phantom beasts gathered effortlessly as you and your family struggled endlessly to keep a weedy garden alive.
In our warm house across the river, I smell the approach of Christmas. Vanilla and cinnamon candles, a fir tree decked out with ornaments and strings of popcorn. A buffalo roast is simmering in the oven. I wonder if the homesteaders managed to make a Christmas in that dugout. The pickings were certainly slim in that hard, poor land. Were the last Christmases, before they fled, marked with hunger? Did they manage to save a few potatoes and fatten a hog? Were they struck by the irony of heating that meager meal with dung from a shadow herd that could have fed them indefinitely.
The details of what went on at that homestead site will never be known, but the big picture is clear. Curly Billville and tens of thousands of places like it have never been able to accommodate concentrations of humans, or any other species. They cannot be bent to fit a sedentary life imported from Europe or the East Coast of America. The homestead that occupied the ridge over the head waters of Little Corral Creek was as ephemeral as a flock of crows, a few years in a continuum of eons. I like to think that, after those few rough Christmases, the homesteaders had a long string of good ones. I picture the honyakers that trailed out of Little Corral Draw in the nineteen thirties making their way to Orange County California. I see shiny cars, kids, and grandkids. Hundreds of acres of orange trees growing in the perfect climate. I get seriously tickled when I imagine the same buffalo roast that simmers in our stove, simmering in theirs.
And I promise myself that, the first decent day, I will ride out to Curly Billville and sit as long as the weather will let me in the yard of the failed experiment. I will think of those California orange growers and I will gaze out over that rough county that for a little while was their home. The buffalo will be there and it will look like the homestead never existed.
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