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May 03, 2005

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The day Jill was due…

The day Jill was due to arrive home from France I got a call that an old friend had just died. Tim Hjort and his family had become my friends through Jill. She and Jilian had lived beside them years ago and something had clicked the way it sometimes does. When I met the Hjort’s it clicked for me too. Tim was just my age, a progressive man who had been raised on a Montana ranch and had ranched in South Dakota for decades. He could be as cynical and cantankerous as I can be. We enjoyed each other’s company and our families enjoyed each other, so greeting Jill with the news of Tim’s impending funeral was tough duty.

Had this been a “normal” funeral I would have waited until the next day to tell Jill. After all, we hadn’t seen each other for nearly three weeks; she was giddy with stories of Paris and impending jet lag. The Champagne was chilled. But this news couldn’t wait. This good friend’s funeral was the next day on a ranch a hundred and fifty miles away. Why the next day when Tim had died just hours before? Another one of the things I loved about Tim: no churchy funeral for him. No silly rights of being stretched out in some funeral home for two days. No crowded cemetery. And no embalming. I’m not sure how he did it but during the illness that finally killed him Tim arranged to be simply put in a wooden box and buried on a pretty little knoll behind the ranch house. The State disapproved, of course, but acquiesced on condition that he end up in the ground within twenty-four hours.

So Jill’s homecoming wasn’t all it could have been. There were tearful calls to Tim’s wife, Janey, and their daughter Shannon. A little sleep. A scramble to figure out what to wear to such an event. Then a long and nearly silent ride to the far reaches of Western South Dakota in the gathering gloom of what we all suspected would be another overcast and fruitless flirtation with a much needed spring rain.

Jilian just turned eighteen and I think it was her first taste of death where the focus was on a dear friend. The closest town to the Hjort ranch was Buffalo, where Jilian had had her nose broken in a basketball game not two months before. The last time we had traveled that road it was in the opposite direction and she had her face buried in a bag of ice. There were a lot of tears that day too. But the pain of a broken nose is ephemeral. The funeral of Tim Hjort will last.

The grayness hung low over the house and barn and in the yard there were twenty dusty pickups and sedans. Mostly neighbors, mostly people I knew in the way you know people who live with a lot of distance between them. I’d seen some at the sale barn, knew other’s kids from rodeo or football. There had been hay or cattle or land dealing with a few. Some of them were a surprise. There were old folks and toddlers. There were a few republicans though Tim was a fierce democrat. There was a neighbor that I’d heard had had disputes with Tim. There were old business partners and friends of Tim’s children. There was me and Jill and Jilian and that brooding sky that had not given up its rain for many months.

The Hjort’s own two ranches and on each ranch there is a cowboy – call them foremen – who thought the world of Tim. If there was anything good about the way Tim died it was that everyone knew it was coming. The two men who worked for him had enough time to cut cedar and ash trees off the ranches and plane the boards for the casket. I went right to it. I wanted to see if the cedar had a red blaze of heartwood. It did and the smell of that smooth, flayed, icon of the west mixed with the trace of the unembalmed body in a way that seemed very right to me. It stripped away the subterfuge of death and made that day real and important. I watched Jilian, hoping to see her ratchet up from her teenage years to a new understanding.

It was not that sad until the spring-wagon pulled up in front of the house. It was drawn by two dark horses and driven by two men in black Stetsons and wearing dark, weathered dusters. The casket was plucked from the living room by six men – young and old – who struggled a little getting it out past the people on the back porch. The wind had come up and one of the pall-bearers hat blew off and was retrieved by a boy of twelve with big eyes and a mouth that hung open as he handed it back to the man after the casket was slid into the wagon. There was some quiet controversy about how best to secure the wagon’s tailgate. The path to the burial knoll was steep and several men took it upon themselves to ensure that the chain boomer would not allow anything to go wrong.

It started to rain just as we formed a line of pickups behind the wagon. It was a tiny sign that drought is not eternal and, as somber as the people were, there was the trace of a grin on faces as enough rain gathered on hat brims to run into rivulets and drip down through our vision of a blue-jeaned preacher leading us in Amazing Grace. It didn’t take long. A little sermon, a few folks with a few kind words for Janey and Shannon – for the grandkids Tim loved so deeply. Then the casket was lowered and the ropes retrieved. The preacher sprinkled in the first handful of dirt and I noticed that there was a trace of mud on his fingertips.

A spell was broken when a knarly old rancher allowed that it was just like Tim to go to such lengths to bring rain. I looked at Jilian and saw her sense of humor fighting to struggle to the surface – through the tears and rain gathering on her face. She got in line with the rest of us to toss in a shovel full of dirt. What a wonderful celebration it was.


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