THE HOMESTEAD IN THE SHADOW OF STRONGHOLD. Installment Four
April 6, 2007
THE HOMESTEAD IN THE SHADOW OF STRONGHOLD
It was decided that Papa Robert would go to Deadwood after he and Jack had cut enough wood for the winter. It was already September and the nights were cooling. Mama, Molly, and Grandmother Iron Cloud dug a third of the potatoes and left the other two thirds in the ground where Mama said they would keep. In the cotton woods along the river Papa Robert and Jack cut wood into lengths just long enough to fit into the stove and stacked it on the rickety wagon. They kept a shotgun leaned against a stump, and three times shot migrating mallard ducks for Mama to cook and steam into jars for the winter.
Every evening, Shamrock would come pulling a wagon full of cottonwood from the river with Papa Robert and Jack walking behind. And every evening when Molly walked out to meet them, she would see Grandmother Iron Cloud sitting beside her dugout and looked not toward the west, where the sunset was always splashed red across the sky, but toward the east, where the last yellow rays pinched out at the top of Stronghold Table. Every day more wood was added to the pile of wood beside the house, and although everyone smiled to see it grow taller and taller, no one wanted to see the job completed.
One day, when Mama and Grandmother were in the house and Papa Robert and Jack were at the river, Molly slipped from the house and out behind the house to the wood pile. For several days she had been thinking about how her father would leave when the pile was high enough, and suddenly she was frightened. She wanted to cry, but she set her jaw and quietly loaded her arms with stove wood. She was on her way to the brush beyond the dugout to hide the armload of wood when she heard Grandmother Iron Cloud’s voice. “Molly.”
It froze her in her tracks, and when she turned to the old woman, the tears let loose and the stove wood tumbled to the ground. She stood defeated and crippled with sadness until Grandmother came to her and pulled her awkwardly to her breast. Her bony hands patted her back until Molly stopped her crying. “Come with me,” Grandmother Iron Cloud said as they picked up the wood and returned it to the pile. Your parents will be angry but it is best that you come with me.”
They stopped at the dugout long enough to pick up a blanket and a leather bag filled with some of the turnips they had dug in the summer. “We will eat turnips and it is the Moon of Ripening Berries.” She smiled. “We will not starve.”
Molly had no idea where they were going, but she followed the old woman along the edge of the river breaks and then up a long flat draw toward the high country. She never questioned Grandmother Iron Cloud, even when the sun began to sink in the sky. They walked in a straight line toward the east and only detoured to find a hidden draw where buffalo berries grew thick and red in bushes guarded by wicked thorns. Grandmother Iron Cloud laughed to see Molly carefully reach into the bushes and pick a single, tiny buffalo berry from the branch. She came away with her berry but also with a puncture from a thorn. “If you harvest your berries like that, you will either starve or bleed to death.” She laughed again and unrolled the blanket.
With a stick, Grandmother Iron Cloud spread the blanket neatly under the bush and stood back with the stick over her shoulder and a smile on her face. She moved around the bush to be sure the blanket was just right. Then, with a childish giggle, she began to beat the bush with all her might. When the berries began to fall, Molly found her own stick and joined in. They giggled and beat the dickens out of that bush. And all the time the blanket was filling with ripe, dark, red berries.
They ate their fill and bundled up the rest in the blanket. Molly thought they would take the berries home, but Grandmother Iron Cloud did not turn for the river. She took two turnips from her leather sack, handed one to Molly and continued on the path they had walked already for over an hour. They chewed on the hard dry turnips and continued to walk toward the high country. They were going up a long hill covered in short, drought-burned grass and it was impossible to see the top or for Molly to guess what was on the other side. She looked behind her and was startled by how low the sun had settled in the western sky. Finally she spoke. “We’ll get caught in the dark.”
“The dark will not hurt us. I want to show you where to bury me.”
Molly was so shocked she stopped walking. “What?”
“I want to show you where to bury me.” The old woman continued to climb the hill.
Molly ran to catch up. “I’m not going to bury you,” she said.
Grandmother Iron Cloud did not slow her pace but she shook her head. “Not now, you silly girl. When I’m dead.”
“When you’re dead?” Molly was stumbling in her effort to catch up so she was not beside the old woman until they came to the top of the hill. Before she could continue to question Grandmother Iron Cloud, they broke over the rim of the hill and a huge flat land spread out in front of them. A thousand prairie dogs barked and ran to the tops of their holes. A line of antelope strung out a half mile ahead and ran a curious half circle before they stopped and looked back. The grass was short and multicolored, with prairie dog holes for miles. And above it all, loomed Stronghold Table. From there it looked like a fortress. The walls were steep, but gullies of cedar trees wound down and joined the giant prairie dog town. “It looks like you could get to the top by following the trees,” Grandmother Iron Cloud said. “But there is only one way up and no water until you are safe on top.”
Molly’s mouth was open and her eyes were huge. “It is so big,” she said.
“After they slaughtered Big Foot and Wounded Knee, we came here. From the top you are very close to the Spirits and the ancestors. The two-footed and the four-footed. Beyond Stronghold Table, the People and Tatanka are one again.” She smiled. “We would have turned to buffalo if the soldiers would have come for us. But they never came and no one was killed.” Then she turned slightly to her left and pointed to a gnarled cottonwood that grew in a place where cottonwood should not grow. “There,” she said, “is where I want to be buried.”
“Where?” Molly said.
“In the branches of that tree. From there the eagles and crows can carry me to Stronghold easy. From Stronghold I will not be far from home.”
A chill tickled Molly’s neck. “You are scaring me, Grandmother.”
Grandmother Iron Cloud had been too engrossed with looking at Stronghold and the odd cottonwood to pay much attention to Molly, but now she turned with concern on her face. “No, no, silly girl.” She moved to Molly and stood close. “Don’t be afraid. I am only telling you of the next step on my path back to you.”
“When you die.” Molly was looking at her, trying to understand.
“We all die. That we know, and it is not bad. It is the way of things. The only question is how and when.” She looked across the prairie and couldn’t help smiling. “And where we will be buried.” She laughed and Molly had to laugh with her. “It is a beautiful tree,” Grandmother said. “And just a short jump to Stronghold.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder and watched as the light changed over, first the sea of prairie dog holes, then the burial tree and finally, Stronghold Table. It was getting dark. “If we don’t hurry back,” Molly moaned, “I’m the one that will need the burial tree. Papa and Mama are going to kill me.”
It was an hour after dark when they got back to the house and Papa had Shamrock saddled and ready to go out looking for them. “Where in the world have you been, young lady?” Papa’s voice was stern but Molly could see that he was happy to see her.
“The Stronghold,” Molly said. “I’m sorry we worried you.”
“You walked to Stronghold?” He was looking hard at Molly.
Molly turned to consult Grandmother Iron Cloud but she had slipped away to her dugout. “We didn’t walk all the way, but we could see it really well.” Since her father seemed to be listening, she added, “It is a beautiful place. Like a magic place.”
This was too much and her father scowled. “You best get into the house,” he said. “Your supper is cold and we all need to talk.” Molly wanted to tell him that she was not hungry and that they had eaten great handfuls of buffalo berries, but what he had said about needing to talk made her know that she should get into the house, sit down, and not say too much more.
When she got into the house Jack frowned at her and her mother shook her head. They all sat at the small wooden table and watched as she ate her dinner. She forced herself to eat every bite because she knew that there was not much food and she didn’t want them to think she was wasteful. Her mother stood up and stood over her as she took the last forkful of mashed potatoes. She took the plate and the fork from the table as soon as Molly was finished. Molly wanted to get up and help her wash them at the water bucket but her father’s face told her to stay put. “It is Wednesday,” Papa Robert said. “I will leave for Deadwood at the end of the week,”
Molly and Jack’s eyes fell to the table and they heard their mother come back to the table and sit. “We will watch the homestead,” Mama said. “While your father is away.” She was trying to sound brave but both Molly and Jack could hear the fear in her voice.
“I’ll be gone for the winter,” was about all Papa Robert could say. He sounded frightened too, but after a long silence he tried to joke. “We haven’t gotten any moisture all summer. It probably won’t even snow while I’m gone.”
There was another pulsing silence and the sound of distant coyote. Mama stood up and moved to put a hand on the shoulder of both of her children.
“We will get along,” she said, and they could feel her hand moving in a circle on their backs. “Now we will go to bed. We will all need our sleep.”
And Mama was right. The next day turned out to be terrible. That was the day that Papa Robert found Grandmother Iron Cloud on the bench outside her dugout, she was dead.