Authors: Paulette Callen
In memory of my grandmother, Pauline Sirien Magnus, who told me the stories, and Cindy Poulson, who allowed me to re-tell her those stories on a bus ride to New Jersey.
And for Greg.
This book is dedicated to the horses—all of them. Throughout history, we have used them and abused them. We still do. They have served us with devotion and deserve better than being forced to race and to pull carriages through city traffic. They deserve better than being hunted down in their wild herds because we think the land can’t support so many of them, while what the earth can’t support is so many of
. They deserve better than to be slaughtered for food. My grandmother loved horses and knew them well. She passed this love on to me, perhaps through blood, perhaps through her stories. I am only here on this planet as the person I am because a horse named Dolly saved her life when she was a tot. In gratitude, I offer up this Buddhist metta practice for them.
May all horses be happy and free from suffering and fear.
May all horses be healthy and free from illness and injury.
May all horses be safe and free from harm.
May all horses live with ease.
God knows, they deserve it.
I am grateful to many friends who have supported and encouraged me during the writing of this book: particularly Patty and Jimmy Short and Gayle Nilson. Thank you, my anchor and my engine—the Every-
Other - Monday - Night - Brilliant - Writers’ Workshop:
Harriet Mendlowitz, Mary Burns, Suzanne Heath, Jon Fried, Gary Reed. Thank you, Doris Hess, Bruce Bryant, and Carol Johnsen for your creative jump-starts; Jim Nilson for insights and information about local South Dakota lore; Bill Morris for showing me which end of a gun is which; and Valerie K. Angeli for telling me about horses. Thank you, Tony Guest of I.S.W.D. and Roger Broadway of Roger Broadway Ent., Ltd. for answering my questions about well drilling in the late nineteenth century. And many more thanks are due to Ylva Publishing, who picked up the reins after they were dropped.
And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
– I Peter 4:8 –
King James Bible
Prologue: November 1899
alking was easier once they
were out on the frozen lake where ankle-deep waves of snow alternated with strips of unevenly powdered opaque ice—its bumps and ridges attested to the struggle: Crow Kills did not go meekly to its winter rest.
The blizzard had swept the ice, banking tons of snow along the shoreline and in the trees. Only one who knew about the cabin and recognized the particularities of the two barren cottonwoods projecting through the highest drift like old bony hands grabbing at the sky would know that a human dwelling was there.
The man stopped.
The boy said, “There is no smoke.”
Little Bull, chief of the Red Sand Tribe of the Dakotah Sioux, and his son Leonard unstrapped the shovels they’d carried on their backs and began to dig. In spite of the cold, both were sweating when they finally reached the door and made an opening wide enough to step into. Little Bull pulled at the door, then pried it open with his shovel. Not wanting to break the door, he pulled it slowly; its creaking shattered the frozen silence like the cry of an injured crow, until the opening was wide enough for him to squeeze through. In the dark, the cold cut deeper. Leonard slipped in behind him. The only light was the little that came in with them.
When his eyes adjusted to the dark, Little Bull went to the old woman seated at the table. He took her hands in his. She seemed lifeless, but he did not feel himself in the presence of death. “Make the fire, Son.”
Little Bull half carried, half dragged the old woman to the bed in the corner, covered her with blankets and began to rub her hands and feet.
Chapter 1: April 1900
ena Kaiser gave birth on
the dining room table presided over by the horse doctor while her husband lay passed out on the living room floor. Will Kaiser had come home drunk to find his wife in labor and had stayed ambulatory just long enough to make it to Gudierian’s Harness and Tack Shop and back.
She would have been more comfortable on the floor, or standing up clutching the back of a chair, which is how they found her, but Harlan Gudierian made her lie down on the table so he would not strain his back while he fished around inside her.
Between waves of pain, Lena cried out for Gustie, for Alvinia, for her mother, but her mother was dead and Lena feared that she soon would be too.
The screen door opened a crack. Kermit Torgerson stuck his head in, turned tail, and ran all the way home. “Ma! Something bad is happening at Kaiser’s.” He gulped a deep breath. “Mrs. Kaiser is hollering something awful.”
“Is Doc Moody there?” Alvinia wiped her floury hands on a dish towel.
“I didn’t see him. All I saw was Mr. Gudierian.”
“Gudierian?” Alvinia fairly roared the name as she tore off her apron and flung it across a chair. “Go find Doc Moody and don’t come back till you’ve got him.”
“Yes, Mama.” The boy hit the screen door running. It banged shut behind him.
Eight of Alvinia’s ten children were gathered around the table. “Vernon, are Brownie and Popper still hitched to the wagon?”
“Bring them around for me, Son. Alice, get my bag. You and Betty are coming with me. Lavonne, stay here with the little ones and tell Daddy where we are when he comes home for dinner. Boil up the potatoes and don’t let the roast dry out. We probably won’t be home till late. Malverne—you run now and get Mary Kaiser and then go to the depot. Tell Willie to telegraph Joe Gruba in Wheat Lake for Gustie. Tell him Mrs. Kaiser is having her baby. Tell him Will Kaiser will pay him for it tomorrow.”
Eldon and Ira, the two youngest boys, watched wide-eyed as chairs scraped the floor and their older siblings scrambled to obey their mother. Kirstin, still in her highchair, banged her tin cup loudly so as to be part of the excitement.
Alvinia Torgerson was a large, pretty-faced woman, strong and light on her feet. As soon as her last instruction was given, she was out the door, her midwife’s bag in hand, followed by her two eldest daughters. Betty took the reins and galloped the team toward the south of town.
The Torgerson women entered Lena’s house quietly. Alvinia paused in the doorway between kitchen and dining room, surveying the scene. Lena’s still, small form was lying on the table, covered by the tablecloth. Beside her lay a bloody newborn still connected to the afterbirth. Gudierian’s hands and arms were bloody as a butcher’s, and his eyes flicked back and forth in panic. When they came to rest on Alvinia, they widened in fear, then closed in relief. He stepped aside.
Only Lena’s lips moved as Alvinia lifted the tablecloth. She saw more blood, way too much. “Get me some ice, Alice.”
Lena tried to speak, but Alvinia hushed her. “Don’t you worry now, Lena. From here on in, me and my girls’ve got you. We’ve got you.”
Alvinia tied and cut the umbilical cord and then handed the baby over to Betty. Alice hammered furiously at a chunk of ice she had pulled out of Lena’s ice box. Alvinia filled a basin with hot water from the cook stove’s reservoir. The two sisters exchanged glances. Their mother’s nose and ears had turned bright red, and her pale blue eyes had darkened two shades. Alvinia was in a rage. They did not often see her like this. They maintained a respectful silence.
Alvinia carried her basin back into the dining room where Harlan Gudierian still stood, his bloody arms hanging limply at his side. “Harlan, get out of here.” She jerked her head toward Will Kaiser’s sprawled figure. “Take him with you. You can clean up outside at the well.”
“He’s too heavy. I can’t lift him.” Harlan was bigger than Will, but the excess was in fat, not muscle, and much of it, it seemed to Betty and Alice, was in his head. No one ever talked back to Alvinia.
“Then drag him!”
“I don’t give a tinker’s damn where to! Leave him in the barn or get Sheriff Sully to throw him in jail where he belongs—and you with him!”
Harlan Gudierian shuffled into the living room and began to study the physics of moving Will Kaiser.
The infant squawked.
“Is she all right, Betty?”
“Fine, Mama. Just fine.”
“Lena, you hear that?” Alvinia removed the bloody tablecloth and began cutting away Lena’s dress. “Your baby’s all right. You have a little girl.”
Mary Kaiser, Lena’s sister-in-law, arrived, stepping over Will as Harlan Gudierian dragged him by his feet out the front door. She hardly took notice—she had stepped over Will Kaiser before, almost everyone in town had once or twice—but when she saw Lena looking more dead than alive, she gasped, “Oh, dear Mother of God! Tell me what to do, Alvinia.”
“Rip up a sheet into squares about yay big.” By the time Mary had torn a sheet, Alice had pounded the ice into a snow-like consistency. Alvinia made small pockets of crushed ice from the squares of cloth and packed Lena’s womb to stanch the bleeding. Rivulets of tears streamed from the outside corners of Lena’s eyes. She whispered, “Stuffed like a chicken.”
“Now, you hush.” Alvinia dabbed the tears away with a piece of leftover sheet and touched Lena’s cheek soothingly with the palm of her plump hand.
She and Mary washed Lena carefully and patted her dry. Mary found her nightgown and they slipped it over her head. “It’s all we can do. Let’s get her to bed.”
Alvinia lifted Lena in her arms and carried her into the bedroom. They tucked her under thick covers.
Lena whispered, “I want my baby.”
Betty brought the infant, clean and wrapped in a soft blanket, and placed her in Lena’s arms.
The wind swirled through the branches of naked cottonwoods, laid low the stiff brown slough grasses, ran its unhindered course over fallow fields, and raised the gooseflesh on Will Kaiser’s naked torso as he washed himself in the icy stream of well water. The morning was too cold for an outdoor bath. He had come to with a fuzzy, throbbing head and unsteady gait, but when Will rattled the screen door of his own house, Alvinia would not let him in. Before he turned away, he asked, “Is Lena doing okay?”
“Barely. No thanks to you.” Alvinia shut the door in his face.
Giving up on the thin pump stream, Will plunged his head up to his shoulders into the horse trough and then gripped the rim of the trough and shook himself like a dog. Water flew out of his hair and ears.
The screen door flapped shut behind him. He cocked his head to see out of his good eye the tall, slender woman approaching him on his right. The shrill sun glinted off her glasses. Over one arm was draped a clean shirt and a towel and in her hand she held a cup. In her other hand she carried a pot of steaming coffee.
She came to his side and without a word offered him the towel. Now he remembered passing her black mare stalled next to his gelding in the barn. As he dried himself he said, “’lo, Gus. Alvinia wouldn’t let me in.”
“I overheard. I was in the bedroom with Lena.”
“Lena all right?”
Gustie sucked her lower lip. “I think she will be.” She sensed he was afraid to ask the next question. She reassured him, “The baby is fine. You have a daughter.”
Will held the towel to his face. When he finally lowered his hands, Gustie took the towel and gave him the shirt.
“How long you been here?” he asked.
“Since just before dawn. Alvinia and the girls have been here all night. So was Mary, but when I got here, she went home to fix Walter’s breakfast.”
“Doc ever show up?”
“This morning. He’d been out at the Grode place. He gave Lena something for pain. He’ll be back this evening.”
Will’s large hands were clumsy with the buttons of his shirt. He left the bottom two undone and tucked the shirt into his trousers. “I really did it this time, didn’t I?”
“I’m afraid so.” Gustie poured coffee into a cup and gave it to him. She set the pot down on the overturned washtub next to the trough and perched on the rim of the trough. Will, still unsteady in spite of the icy water and bracing wind, sat down heavily on the tub. He ran his fingers through his wet hair, smoothing it down with the palms of his hands. He winced and felt for a tender spot on the back of his head. “How’d I get this bump on my head?”
“Harlan dragged you out of the house yesterday. I guess you got knocked around some.”
Will took a sip of his coffee and winced again. “This is
coffee.” He gave Gustie a lean smile. “You could stand a pitchfork in it.”
Gustie nodded and grinned back. The wind had loosened strands from the mass of brown hair piled on top of her head and was whipping them across her face. She tried to tuck them back under her hairpins.
“You don’t look so hot,” he said, taking another sip.
“I was at Crow Kills. I rode all night to get here.”
“Figured.” He nodded.
She countered with, “You look like something mucked out of the barn.”
“Feel like it.” Then, his voice husky with misery, he asked, “What am I going to do?”
She considered him sadly. In spite of everything, Gustie liked Will Kaiser. She casually plucked a bit of lint off the dark fabric of her split skirt. “My grandfather used to drink himself sick. He was a good man, otherwise. I wish I could have done something for him. But I was a child then.” Gustie’s eyes met Will’s for a moment. His hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t pour himself a second cup of coffee. She did it for him.
The sound of the door opening and closing and girls’ voices carried to them over the wind as Alvinia and her daughters came out of the house. Will didn’t look up. Gustie watched them climb into their wagon. This time, Alvinia took the reins, driving the team in a circle stopping in front of Gustie and Will. Her face bore the strain of the long night, but her rage was still in full flare. She looked down on him. “Will Kaiser, a woman is not a horse. But a man can sure be a horse’s ass.” She snapped the reins over the rumps of her horses and the wagon jumped behind the team.
Will raised his head and watched them go.
“Alvinia saved Lena’s life, Will.”
“Yup. I know.” He drained his cup and shook out the dregs on the grass.
Gustie stood. “Let’s go in and introduce you to your daughter.”
The sun, bright and climbing, had little warming effect on the chilly April wind that scudded across the prairie and rattled the shutters on Mary Kaiser’s house. Winter clung to the earth in dull patches of snow and ice and could still rise again in force, unmindful even of the bells of Easter.
Mary sat alone in her chair by the window, looking out. She kissed the crucifix and made the sign of the cross:
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Her fingers traveled the rosary, the string of beads as familiar as the road home. She sat like this every day, praying with devotion, but today she prayed with a special intention. Mary had had her share of attending at bedsides, but yesterday, seeing her sister-in-law lying still, white-lipped, and helpless, had shaken her. She offered up today’s Rosary for the wellbeing of Lena and her baby.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell…
The wooden beads soothed her hand as the words soothed her heart
...on the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
After all these years of faithfulness, Mary’s fingers moved as nimbly as her babka’s had. Even toward the end, hardly able to do anything else, her eyes closed, her lips just trembling the prayers, her grandmother’s skeletal fingers could still play out the beads fluently. In her grandmother’s final hour, the child Mary whispered, “Let the Rosary take you to heaven, Babka.” And it did.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.