I have been challenged by a Wild Idea customer to “write a children’s story with buffalo, why don’t you?” Well, I’ve never done that but I’ve always wanted to try. It might take me a few months but here is the first part of a first draft of a first children’s story.” I am looking for advice.
THE HOMESTEAD IN THE SHADOW OF STRONGHOLD
The winter after Grandmother Iron Cloud died was the worst that anyone could remember. The homesteaders of the Cheyenne River Bottom had only been around for a few years, but the Lakota people agreed that there had never been so much snow, that the winds had never blown so hard, and that it had never been so cold. But, Grandmother Iron Cloud died in the autumn, when the leaves of the cottonwood trees along the Cheyenne River fluttered the brightest yellow that Jack and Molly Ryan had ever seen.
Papa Robert found her body in the old dugout shelter they had allowed her to live in after she wandered in from somewhere beyond Stronghold Table. By then, the Ryan’s had built a sod house with two rooms and the dugout that had been their temporary dwelling the first year they homesteaded, was empty except for the last few chickens that Mrs. Ryan had wanted to butcher anyway. The old dugout, with sod laid on top of a few cedar poles for a roof, had been Grandmother Iron Cloud’s home for almost two years by the time she died. And, in that time she had changed from a thin, frightened woman from another world, to part of the Ryan family. Molly made friends with her first.
They had very few neighbors, but the ones they had, did not like it that the Ryans had “taken in” an old Indian woman. But Papa Robert remembered from growing up in Ireland what it was like to be alone and hungry and Mama agreed. “It is the duty of human beings," she said. "To take care of each other.”
Papa Robert agreed. “The world is a very hard place,” he said. “‘Especially this place.” He looked around the homestead, the corral made of cedar poles with the cow and their only horse leaning through to nibble grass on the other side, the garden scratched into the sandy soil, the green and growing single field of wheat they had managed to get planted that spring, and the ring of cream colored, weathered buttes that looked down on them. They were surrounded by nothing but grass and sky.
When Papa Robert looked around his homestead like that, his eyes always ended up on the huge butte three miles to the east. The sides were high and too steep for even a good horse to climb. Papa Robert guessed that the top was three quarters of a mile across, and even from that distance, anyone could see that it was flat enough to farm. Grandmother Iron Cloud said that there were sweet springs up there, and that it was a special place for the Lakota people. They called it Stronghold Table and their legends said that if the People where ever at war and the enemy was chasing them that they would be safe on Stronghold Table. That is why, she told Molly one day, after Bigfoot’s band had been surrounded and killed by the soldiers, the People fled for the top of the butte that cast a long shadow on the homestead every summer morning.
Molly got that story on one of the first mornings that Grandmother Iron Cloud was with them. Mama had given Molly some scraps of bread and a left-over egg to take to the old lady and told Jack to go along and look after his little sister. He figured that Mama wasn’t sure that the old lady was safe and she wanted Jack to take care of Molly, who was sometimes too bold. Jake took his job seriously. He wasn’t scared of the old lady and didn’t think she was dangerous, but he wasn’t too sure he liked the idea of an Indian living in their dugout. He had heard the stories from other homesteaders about how mean and dirty the Lakota people were. He’d been told that they were ignorant savages and didn’t have much respect for whites or even their own kind. So he figured that he was along with his little sister to protect her. He stood at the door with his arms folded and watched as Molly helped the old lady sit up and helped her eat her breakfast. It was amazing the way Molly could understand what the old woman said. In those early days, Grandmother Iron Cloud didn’t know any English and Jack knew darn well that Molly couldn’t speak Lakota. But they started a kind of talking from the beginning, and by the time Grandmother Iron Cloud was strong enough to sit on the chair that Papa Robert propped up in the sunshine outside the dugout, they could chatter away and even laugh and kid each other about who knew what.
At the beginning, Papa Robert and Mama had worried that there wasn’t enough food for them to feed Grandmother Iron Cloud. The weather was very dry and nothing wanted to grow in this new land the way it had wanted to grow back in Ohio. There was always a lot of talk about the weather and how it would have to change if any of the homesteaders in the Cheyenne River Bottom were going to make it. It seemed that there was only enough rain to make the weeds grow and every morning, when they woke up, the weeds would have gained on the vegetables that they counted on to eat, and the wheat that they counted on to sell in the fall for spending money. One more mouth to feed was exactly what the Ryans did not need. But it wasn’t long before Grandmother Iron Cloud was helping with the chores and earning her keep. She made it clear that pulling weeds was not something she was used to doing but she watched and pitched in with the rest of the family. What she was good at was knowing where to find things on the prairie.
One afternoon she brought to Mama a handful of plants she’d dug up. Mama was cooking a duck that Papa Robert had shot off a pool in the Cheyenne River. She boiled it in an iron kettle along with the last of last year's potatoes. Molly had dug the potatoes out of the dark bin in the back of the shed and Papa Robert had looked them over closely to be sure that they didn’t have the disease he remembered from when he was a child. They were small and soft and covered with sprouts. But the potatoes they had planted in the spring had not yet matured in the ground and these passed Papa Robert’s inspection, so into the kettle they went. Grandmother Iron Cloud approached Mama carefully with the plants held out and a smile on her wrinkled face. “For the pot,” she said. “For the pot.”
Though there was never enough to eat, Mama took pride in her cooking and wasn’t about to toss just anything in her duck stew. She took the plants from Grandmother Iron Cloud and looked carefully at the dirty white bulbs at the roots. Grandmother Iron Cloud was nodding her head and smiling. “Yes,” she said. “For the pot.” She pointed and smiled.
“They look a little like turnips,” Mama said, as she rubbed the earth away. She held a small root to her nose and sniffed. She nodded and took a tiny bite. “Turnip,” she said.
Grandmother Iron Cloud nodded too. “Indian turnip.”
And the next day Molly and Grandmother Iron Cloud came to the house with a bucket and a shovel and Grandmother Iron Cloud pointed at Jack and said, “You come.”
Jack and Papa Robert had been repairing the horse’s harness that they had nearly worn out getting the field ready to plant wheat that spring. It was very important that they fixed it properly because there was no money to buy another harness. “You come,” Grandmother Iron Cloud said again.
“We’re going to dig more turnips for Mama,” Molly said. “She wants to show us how.”
Jack and Papa Robert looked up and Papa Robert shrugged. “You go ahead son.”
“But I want to help you.”
“We’re almost done here. You go with Grandmother and Molly. Those turnips made that duck taste pretty darn good.
It’d be good to know where they grow.” Jack looked at his father. “Go on now,” Papa Robert said. “You do as you’re told.”
They found a whole hillside of turnips. They were six inches under the surface of the ground and at the end of a long stalk that Jack remembered had held a spike of blue flowers in the spring. All the next day Jack and Molly learned how to braid them into long strings that helped dry the turnips, and once they were hung from the dugout’s roof, kept them safe from mice. They ate a lot of turnips that summer as they waited for the garden to grow. They went particularly well with venison but there were few deer left in the Cheyenne River Bottom because it had been so dry and because the few homesteaders that lived along those miles of river hunted them mercilessly.
The land had been Lakota land for hundreds of years, but when the Cavalry convinced the last of the free Indians to come down off Stronghold Table, and force them onto the reservation, it was opened up for homesteading. Everyone knew it was not the best land but there were families like the Ryans who had been late to get the good land. They still wanted a place of their own and so they took the 320 acres they were entitled to under the Homestead Act. But the land was too poor and the deer were easy for the white people with rifles to kill and so they disappeared and very few of them found their way into the Ryan’s stew pot to join the turnips.
Grandmother Iron Cloud talked of buffalo. She called them tatanka and when she spoke of them her voice was hard to hear and she bowed her head. She told the children that when she was their age tatanka had drank from the Cheyenne River not a mile from the homestead and that she had seen them moving from the hills in long strings and gathering in the Bottom by the hundreds. “We did not eat the ducks, or the rabbits, or even the deer,” she said. “We ate tatanka because he made us strong.”
When she spoke like this, even Papa Robert would stop what he was doing and listen. No one he knew had ever seen a buffalo. White men had killed them off many years before the valley was homesteaded. “We’re lucky to see a damned deer,” he said almost to himself. “Imagine hundreds of buffalo.” And he would look out to the valley where Grandmother Iron Cloud had been staring. “Imagine,” he’d say again. But then he would turn back to his work: fixing the plow that had been broken in the hard soil, pulling the weeds that choked the garden, and trying to get one more quart of milk from the cow that was going dry.
Stay tuned for installment two!