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High Plains Novel of the Year
'Horses They Rode' full of linguistic gems
Bozeman Daily Chronicle BOOK REVIEW January ‘07
By SCOTT McMILLION Chronicle Staff Writer
Meet Wendel Ingraham. Meet him slouched over in a Spokane train station, ready to flee the life he has botched and the wife who no longer appreciates "his thoroughbred ways." There among the bums and winos, Wendel doesn't look like much, and he knows it. He's a man who admits he is no better or worse than his malodorous companions.
But he's still got some hope. Wendel is going home to Montana, back to being a white man on the Blackfeet Reservation where he grew up. He knows it's his last chance. "Wendel reckoned if he couldn't find happiness in Montana, he wouldn't find it anywhere," Sid Gustafson writes in the opening pages of his new novel, "Horses They Rode.
"Gustafson is a Bozeman writer and veterinarian. "Horses" is his second novel and the first piece of fiction published by Helena's Riverbend Publishing, making the book very much a Montana project.
Descended from a long line of accomplished Montanans, Gustafson uses his intimate knowledge of the state, its people and its horseflesh to create a compelling story of a man who has spent too much of his life battling his own well being, both financial and emotional.
But he's trying. By God, he's trying. And you've got to root for him, from the time he stumbles off a freight train in Browning until the climactic horse race at the end of the novel.
Along the way, Gustafson delights the reader with characteristic linguistic gems. He describes a prairie wind as "bending into trills and caterwauls." Columbia Falls is a town "befuddled by the stink of its aluminum mill."
And here's his description of modern agriculture, seen from the flank of a northern mountain, where Wendel has just been spooked by a grizzly bear: "Farming stared back at them from the plains, precisely rectangled, Mother Earth turned inside-out, scarred deeply and forever," Gustafson writes. "All the distance broken by farming, tillage taking the entire history away from the land, depriving it of any future."
"Horses They Rode" is the story of a flawed man trying to do better, trying to rebuild a life through family and love, through good horses and good friends in familiar country.
Wendel falters some, and learns to never quit trying. And he listens to his friend, a Blackfeet shaman named Bubbles Ground Owl. "Remember reliable things," Bubbles tells him. "Forget the unreliable."
That's good advice in any place.
“This is a fascinating novel.”
Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and Dalva
"Few novelists have a sense of place, for Americans are a rootless people--Sid's is acute, and he tells a great story of his land and the people on it and in it...
Peter Bowen, author of Coyote Wind, and the Gabriel Du Pré Montana Mysteries
"When I started reading this fine novel, I was at first taken aback, then disturbed. After fifty pages, I realized -- or more accurately, admitted -- why: I was humbled. Sid Gustafson's understanding of Montana -- real cowboys and Indians, and the love-hate dependency that ties them, the land, and its animals together -- is bone deep, blood true, and beautifully described."
Neil McMahon (author of forthcoming Lone Creek, HarperCollins / April 2007 -- set in and around Helena, Montana / contemporary).
“Sid Gustafson writes like the language is a race horse and he is the rider, ready to go as far and fast as they both can go. He is in love with words, especially as they attach to the weather, terrain and inhabitants of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, one of the most unforgiving and beautiful regions on the planet. He knows what he’s talking about. Listen to him.”
Deidre McNamer, author of Rima in the Weeds and My Russian
Washington State Magazine review
Literary review of HORSES THEY RODE
Montana Quarterly Magazine
Book Review, Spring ‘07
Horses They Rode
By Sid Gustafson
Riverbend Publishing, 288 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by Justin Easter
Bozeman author and veterinarian Sid Gustafson has the rare ability to take you from your seat and place you directly in his novel.
He accomplishes this in Horses They Rode not with the all-too-common literary tactics we are used to, but through the use of fascinating imagery. While giving the reader familiar points in Montana to use as reference, Gustafson Brings his readers into a different countryside than the one we see from our windows.
Gustafson brings his reader into a world where Indians and cowboys live together, and before the novel even progresses, the affect of this relationship, however strained, is evident to the reader. The nomadic qualities of Gustafson’s characters echo throughout the novel and resonate in any reader who has felt an itch for exploration.
If you are interested in opening a book that will captivate your imagination while encouraging introspection, you need not look further than Horses They Rode. You may put this novel down wondering about the spirit of the mountains, the relationships you have with people around you, or even the relationship you have with yourself. This is, of course, not surprising when you realize Gustafson is using his own experiences to masterfully shape his characters.
Expect to read one of the finer stories related to quickly dissipating Montana culture, and one of the most impressive novels written by a Montana author this year. Hold on to your emotions, because there will most likely be an instant when Gustafson is able to open your mind in a way that is truly fascinating.
HORSES THEY RODE, Wazzu review
By Sid Gustafson '79 Riverbend Publishing, Helena, Montana, 2006
Reviewed by Brian Ames
Midway through Sid Gustafson’s new novel, Horses They Rode, I found myself put in mind of all the second chances I have had. His take on the reknitting of family, friendship, and one man’s tumultuous life is such a story—a tale of second chances where hope effervesces across a storyscape of high country, horse corrals, drunkenness, and regret that seems, at moments, irresolvable. It’s a wholly American novel, for of course, America is a land forgiving of first mistakes—where a shot at trying again is fair and right.
Wendel Ingraham, Gustafson’s protagonist, is a ranch hand who has roamed Washington State’s Inland Empire, Idaho’s panhandle, and Big Sky Country on a multi-year binge, leaving a daughter and a broken marriage in his wake. A series of experiences, including encounters with a high-school sweetheart and with mentor, companion, and part-time Blackfoot medicine man Bubbles Ground Owl, leads to his sobriety and amends.
Wendel and Bubbles take jobs as hands on a ranch where they worked as youths. And this is where the novel cries its message in earnest. The protagonist is never so competent as when he’s reunited with his beloved horse. The symbiosis that is rediscovered between them, a language of faithfulness and trust, portends atonements awaiting Wendel. A gathering of horsemen and their mounts prompts language from Gustafson that is a gorgeous but gritty admixture of potential:
“Whoever they were, whatever breed of horsemen, they brought horses and they brought hope, hope that horses could revive a manifest heart.”
At the ranch there are additional reconciliations required of Ingraham. In their execution, he emerges whole, “. . . grateful for all the people who’d gathered to live the life they knew best, everything and everyone connected, men and animals, fishes and birds, grass, trees and stars.”
As in his first novel, Prisoners of Flight, Gustafson often joyfully eschews writing conventions. By turns, his forms are starkly tangible or cloaked in mythology. His prose is exuberant and accessible. Rhythmic, he often reads like a long poem: “Parents want their children with them, children of the land, something about having your children with you on the land, native children on native land.”
Horses They Rode is a one-sitting book. And it’s the kind of book about something important in a world full of books about unimportant things. People should like it.
—Brian Ames ’85
Drumlummon academic review by O Alan Weltzien Ph.D. Professor of English, Chairman of English Department at UM-Western
HORSES THEY RODE
HORSES THEY RODE is a dramatic story of love, family, and changing cultures. It takes place along the rugged Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, where ranchers and Native Americans uneasily share the vast landscape with each other, wild animals, and fast horses.
Bruised from a divorce, Wendel Ingraham abandons his hardscrabble life as a racehorse trainer and returns to the mountain foothill ranch where he was raised. There he confronts his past and tries to build a future with his young daughter. The novel lyrically weaves his journey through women, children, horses, and Indian spirituality, culminating in a dramatic horse race.
Gustafson’s beautifully crafted writing limns the intense and complex interactions between men and women, fathers and daughters, Native Americans and whites, and animals and nature. His storytelling and language is full of rhythm and surprise.
Montana Arts Council Review
*Horses They Rode
By Sid Gustafson
Published October 2006 by Riverbend Publishing, Helena, MT
Horse-trainer Wendel Ingraham finds himself washed up on the steep shores of the Rocky Mountain Front – minus his five-year-old daughter, estranged wife and winning racehorse, who all remain in Spokane.
After crossing Marias Pass trapped in a boxcar with a grizzly sow, who is feasting on fermented corn, he falls once again under the tutelage and spell of his old friend, Chief Bubbles Ground Owl.
So begins Sid Gustafson's sometimes harrowing, often humorous and always unpredictable tale of modern-day cowboys and Indians – a tender contemplation of our umbilical ties to children, lovers and the natural world. Gustafson "writes like the language is a race horse and he is the rider, ready to go as far and fast as they both can go," says Dierdre McNamer. And author Jim Harrison praises Horses They Rode as "a fascinating novel."
The author and veterinarian lives in Bozeman, where he writes and practices his natural approach to veterinary medicine. Two previous books include the guide, First Aid for the Active Dog, and the novel, Prisoners of Flight.
Horses They Rode sneak preview
Wendel Ingraham slumped in the Spokane Amtrak station. Waiting for the eastbound Empire Builder to take him to his longlost home in Montana, he gauged his life with that of the hobo and homeless riffraff strewn under and upon the worn wooden benches. He too was now homeless, a drifter no better or worse than they. With this company he found pitiful consolation. His wife of six years had just given him the boot. No longer did she appreciate his thoroughbred ways.
Locked out of his home, he felt no urge but to leave this town, something he’d always considered anyway. Earlier in the day, in her increasingly disillusioned mood, she’d allowed him into the house one last time to pack his old leather bag. That, and to give his five-year-old daughter a hug good-bye. There wasn’t much to pack. She’d made short work of it, shoveling his scant belongings together for him. “Here,” she said, gnashing her teeth to knee the grip of crumpled clothes out the door.
As Wendel embraced his little one he had looked his wife in the eye. “Please, Willow, come on. Try to remember the good times. Let go of the bad. Do that for our daughter, do it for Trish, please.”
“Good times? What good times?” She whisked their child out of his snuggle, pushed the door in his unshaven face, and opened it a crack to bid a last farewell. “We’ll maybe see you in some other life.” Clunk.
His daughter shrieked “Daddy” through the heavy wood. He pinched the bridge of his nose and lifted his head to the colorless sky. The deadbolt to which he had no key sounded a discordant endnote.
And that was that for the family life he’d always dreamed.
The oldtown station reeked of stale smoke, bitter body odors, and pissed pants. Welcome to scuzzville, Spookaloo’s underbelly. The lobby—the waiting-for-a-train-to-carry-you-away atmosphere—jogged the memory of Wendel Ingraham. Remembrance of train, clamor of travel, the acrid smell of transience. Echoes of lobby and squeal of metal. Soon it would be the same cars, the same stations, the familiar clunk CLUNK clunk CLUNK clunk CLUNK. Running, running from one misfortune to the other. Again. A life fraught with travel—a fate too recurrent to explain.
He pulled himself upright, rose, and walked to the ticket window. Clack of dust-hardened soles. Iron bars of the teller window, like some frontier bank. Money passed, change made, the ticket pocketed—the same ageless clerk adorned in the same company shirt, his starch shoulders pinched by the same ying-yang suspenders. A black visor shadowing rheumy eyes, a pursed mouth mumbling departure times. A tarnished gold tooth. The man looked up, eyeing Wendel as he might a child, “Please wait and be ready.”
Wait and be ready. “Wait and be ready?”
“That’s right, sonny. Wait and be ready to board.”
Wendel submerged to a distant reincarnation of his younger self chinned to the same cage alongside a dad he was once so proud, a father lost to these same rails to never return. Frozen in front of the window staring at his ticket, Wendel felt a tap on his shoulder. He excused himself and stepped back. The next pilgrim took his place.
Wendel walked along immersed in the massive architecture of the trainstation. His boots sang off the warped marble of the long room inciting an echo pleasant to his ear. He retrieved a crinkled Spokesman Review that had been used as a blanket, or maybe a bed, and sat down. Snapping the sports page taut, he revived the crinkled print. He checked the Playfair horseracing results. Oh yes, his horses had run well last night despite his absence, Dharma Bum winning wire to wire, Corporal Trim coming off the pace to nip the fave by a nose. The apprehension of departure seized Wendel’s guts. A passage of people began.
Wendel’s thoughts had few places to go other than the depths of regret and recapitulation. It was clear relief when the Empire Builder chimed in, people shuffling to and fro, folk rushing to board. Others stood empty handed, waiting with bent expressions for their train-traveling ilk to disembark, praying time had not disfigured them beyond recognition. This Empire Builder had arrived to whisk Wendel away. He marched down the gangway and jumped into the last passenger car. Striding down the aisle, he felt dizzy, weak-kneed. He stopped and racked his bag, stooped to pull down a window, and fell into the seat of an empty compartment. He breathed methodically, waiting for motion to tender its relief. Freight and luggage banged aboard, tossed from an iron-wheeled dolly into the baggage car behind. Then came the snap and hiss of brakes releasing, a kinetic thrum lurched the train ahead, movement Wendel Ingraham welcomed.
A stop soon after the departure took his breath, and the train rocked back and forth, maybe taking on another car. It then resumed forward progress and soon accelerated to speed, carrying him back to a life he once knew, the sway fine and familiar. Wendel reckoned if he couldn’t find happiness in Montana, he wouldn’t find it anywhere. He hadn’t found it in Spokane and nor had his wife, not with him around. Trish seemed happy enough, too young to know the true drear of father-daughter separation. Someday he prayed she would seek him out to know herself. He wished for her to be older, to understand and share more thoughts with him—to know his love for her. He thought of his vanished father. The last time he had seen him he’d arrived unexpectedly at the ranch and hauled Wendel off in the same Empire Builder—his last trip with his father. He felt himself becoming that same vanquished dad.
He hadn’t ever tracked his father down, why would his daughter ever try to seek him out? Wendel pledged to make himself available, to let her know his every whereabout, or to at least know her’s. He promised to no god in particular to be there for his little girl, hanging his head, rubbing his temples with bony-knuckled thumbs. He looked up to a spotty Spokane River fog. He made a pillow with his coat, closed his eyes and let the train do its work.
The trip up and through the Idaho panhandle seemed short enough. By the time they reached Montana sunshine heated the landscape. As the train whizzed along the Kootenai River Wendel rose in rhythm with the train and ambled down the aisle to the door, a balance unforgotten. He entered the cage between cars. He stood in the uncertain box, watching through a gap. The girders of a long bridge went by, went by, went by. Wendel took a deep breath, inhaling the air from a budding Montana, the green world thinning by. He went through car after car until he found the observation car. He climbed into its dome. With the world flying below, he fell asleep.
The train shucked over the trestle into Whitefish. Bells clanged, waking him. Everyone clamored to unload stranding Wendel in the Vista Dome. He caught his breath from a dream unremembered and lowered into an empty passenger compartment and sidled through to the bar car—quiet and empty, a black man smiling as he wiped down the mahogany. “Have a pleasant journey,” the man said. Wendel debarked and walked down the street toward the closest lounge, a drink to soften the final leg home. All that remained between Whitefish and his former home was that sweet ribbon of Great Northern rail straddling the Continental Divide. Ingraham had ticketed himself to Cut Bank, Montana, an oil town wilting on the plains below the Walking Box Ranch, where he hoped they would welcome him back to work and ride. The thought of arriving unexpectedly worried him. He stopped, reconsidering his flight. The tang of conifer air gripped him, begging him to stay in Whitefish, at least for awhile. Instead of continuing on, he decided to catch the next eastbound over the mountains, whenever that might be, early tomorrow he surmised. He sprinted back to the station, tripped aboard, and grappled his way through the awkward cars to his baggage. Breathless, he skidded the sorry sum of worldly belongings off the mumbling train and into the depot. He hefted the grip onto a high shelf. Before he knew it he found himself spinning on a barstool in the Great Northern Saloon.
“What’ll it be, cowboy,” the bartender snarled, looking at Wendel’s curly blond hair springing from under his stable-rumpled Stetson.
“What do you have?” Wendel asked.
The bartender spouted off a list of beers Wendel had never heard of before and ordered the local microbrew called Great Northern, a mountain goat on the label. He looked at himself through a pyramid of liquor stacked in front of a great mirror. The aprés ski crowd chatted and gestured in reflection, milling about like sheep. From ski bums to gandy dancers, the town had its share of characters. Out of the collection of afternoon drinkers a familiar face flashed, a woman he hadn’t anticipated seeing ever again.
“Wendel, is it you?” Nancy said.
“It’s me, darling” he replied, standing to hug her.
“Well I’ll beeee. The powder hound returns. Just look at yooou!” The young lady betrayed her joy with feminine twinges of excitement, lips like licked candy, lips that entranced Wendel, lips pursing and stretching through each wonderful word.
Wendel offered her a stool. Nancy was a fine-looking woman, ever more svelte with time, her sculpted facial features softening with age, her hair the same dirty blond as his, but long and sleek. Steely eyes that radiated a certain blue. She smiled and sat down beside him, Wendel savoring the moment. He’d surprised himself calling her darling and hugging her, such a welcome presence, friendship he needed.
“Let’s take a walk after it gets dark,” she said. “Whitefish is a fine town by night.”
“You live here still, then?” Wendel asked.
“Yes, I do. Seems I always have and always will. It’s been that sort of town for me, you know, the place you can’t leave.”
She ordered a drink from a bartender she seemed to know, and stood up to take off her cashmere coat. Nancy stepped back to take Wendel in. She put her hands on her sway hips and looked him up and down. “You look great! Tell me about your life.”
He tried to add something up to tell her before bringing the words to his lips. He couldn’t imagine that he looked great. He didn’t feel so great, not just yet. Nancy had been his teammate from the gelundesprung days of too many years back, limberlost days when the two of them had concocted a ski jumping and aerial play off The Big Drift on top of The Big Mountain, the good ol’ days. The little lady could get more air than any woman on the hill. They would fly off the drift together in high slung fashion, freeing themselves of the surly bonds of earth, twisting their bodies, flailing their skis—back scratchers and daffys to relieve the rigors of downhill training. Wendel had nearly forgotten the thrill of those flights, the sight of her flush face sailed him back into that whiteness.
“Well. Aren’t you going to tell me?”
“Horses mostly,” he said. “Back to being a bum right now, though.”
“No, never.” Nancy jerked her head back, appalled at the whim. “Don’t talk about yourself that way!”
“Nothing wrong with bumming from time to time.”
“No? I’m not sure it fits your bill. I’ve heard the news of your good horsework from here and there.”
“My good horsework?”
“Yes, you’re a famous trainer some say.”
“Former trainer is more like it.”
The bartender showed up with Nan’s drink, a tall gin and tonic, the frosted glass sweating. Wendel dug a wad of crumpled bills out of his pocket, flattened them out and set them on the bar. Wendel and Nancy giggled and visited into the night, trading out the superficial details of lost years. Wendel had always wanted Nancy, but she’d always been involved with one or the other of the stud-duck downhillers on the ski team. He’d so tried to gain her favor, but she spun his fragile heart around back then. He remembered giving up on her love, and love in general—the rejected feeling a young man never forgets when first love fails. His presence was needed back across the mountains at the Walking Box Ranch, then as now it seemed. He was expected to break the colts each spring as he had every spring of that boyhood life.
It had been a long twisted time ago when he kissed her goodbye from the top of that lonely mountain, kissed her on the forehead as she tucked her lips into her turtleneck to avoid his lips—his lips wanting, hers unwanting. She skied down the groomed side of the mountain, he the backside—the powder deep and untracked, the turns sweet and lonely… but that was then, and this was now, vanished desire was soon restored. When the lounge closed she offered him her flat across town. Out in the street Nancy put her arm through his, pulling him close. Train whistles worked delicious song through the Whitefish fog. The two reunited skiers sauntered along, waltzing through the chill. She danced Wendel all the way to her cozy bed, and all the way beyond—her tender womanliness rendering him delirious…
“Oh, Wendel, I’m so sorry,” she said in an interlude of loving.
“Sorry for what?”
“For not loving you like you loved me. No one’s ever admired me like you did back then.”
“Thanks,” Wendel said. He was glad she knew.
After the passionate loving that comes to those whose lives have gone astray, Nancy drifted into a swoon. For Wendel sleep would not come, not enough Nancy to bestow the calm his heart needed to sleep. Remembrance engulfed him as he lay spooned to her, his eyes open, his chest feeling her chest breathe. After an hour listening to the clack and hump of railyard freight Wendel became restless. He disentangled himself from his lover’s meld and slipped out of bed to shower off the love. The hot water gave him energy, needed energy to move on. He quietly dressed and spent a long while looking for a missing sock he never found. Before departing he leaned over Nancy, gently jostling her. “Nancy,” he said, “I’m leaving.” With his little finger he outlined the contour of her nose, curling his knuckles to stroke her cheek. He stood and backed away. “Goodbye, Love.” Maybe she would feel his words in the morning, perhaps the way she’d felt his body snuggled to her through half the night. Sleep had her, yes it did, sleep and not him. He stepped out into the cold crank of railroad night.
He jogged to the train station and pulled his awkward baggage from its perch. It landed with a thud that wrought no echo. The readerboard bore disappointing news. The eastbound Empire Builder wouldn’t be through until late afternoon. Out the door of the empty station Wendel limped his wiry frame through the street light, hipping his luggage down the main line. The marrying of cars dizzied him, metal shifting in the darkness, switching and more switching. Beyond streetlights the moon hovered, a jaundiced ghost, a moon no help at all.
Hiking along he hoped for an eastbound freighter. He located a pod of Burlington Northern engines heating up and chased down the waiting cars looking for a hole. There was only one car with open doors. Ingraham lugged his bag up and grunted it aboard, scrambling after the grip as if there was an impending urgency to not to let his life be separated from the skimp belongings it contained. A strange stink greeted him, the boxcar littered with the unfrozen decay of fermenting corn. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness and swept out a space in the back corner. He sat, breathing deeply, praying the train roll east. His body throbbed, mind afflux—the wife, his daughter; Nancy, no home—his life rotting with the turning corn. Now and then thoughts of Nancy soothed his boxcar blues, her attentive breasts and curve flanks, but the thoughts soon drifted cold, seconds ticking all too slowly to minutes. The night passed in mixed-up thought and worried wait. He laid his head on his baggage to doze with the trembling car. Time vanished into a fashion of sleep. When the wet night penetrated every measure of his existence he clicked awake—hungover and sick… a cold world inside and out.
Finally the jerk came. Eastbound it was. Up he snapped to the glory of freight car roll. He stood to the door and braced himself across the opening. Whitefish passed by, dead in the moony fog. The train chopped through Columbia Falls befuddled by the stink of its aluminum mill. Beyond, a hearty night air streamed down Badrock Canyon and into Wendel’s car, restoring a needed order to his central nervous system. The Flathead flowed, a great undertow of water, a seamy surface intimating turbulence below.
The moon and stars and Wendel Ingraham witnessed night pass over this great draw of water as the train picked up steam, skimming the banks, the clickety-clack a pleasure. Rollicking and rolling they shot into Glacier Park, wending upward, a fine passage of midnight forest. At Nyack Flat the engineers poured the coal to her, gaining momentum to rise over Marias Pass. Wendel figured he was as good as home and wandered to his querencia at the back of the boxcar. He laid his spent body on the floor and resigned himself to the womb of transit. He savored the passage of every tie, each spike a happy day of life to come. The security of movement lulled him into a knotted sleep.
Suddenly, a westbound freight thundered past, gyrating Ingraham’s dream, snatching him from a place he could not recall. His train had stopped, perched on a siding under an avalanche tunnel on the tip of Glacier Park’s heart. The passing westbound freighter shattered time. Then, without warning, night fell quiet and still. An eerie air hovered as the freight dopplered off distant, abandoning Wendel. He waited for his train to start moving again, but instead—as if a nightmare—there was a clattering and scratching at the open door. A moonlit creature swept an armful of corn out of the car. Feeble light struggled its way through the avalanche timbers, allowing Wendel to see a pink tongue flicking the kernels into a dark mouth. After devouring all the corn in reach, a bear leapt into the car with the ease of a mountain lion. The animal stood up and with harrowing eyes inspected Ingraham. Satisfied, she casually dropped to her forepaws and lapped at some corn in the middle of the floor. She continued feasting, stopping occasionally to sniff in Wendel’s direction. After a small eternity, the silver-haired griz waddled to the other end of the car where most of the corn remained and sat down, her back in the diagonal corner. From this position ursus arctos horriblis considered her fellow passenger at length, and then, as if secure with his company, proceeded to devour corn like there was no tomorrow. Between slurps and chomps the bear occasionally huffed at Wendel to protect her stash. Sometimes she would vocalize unpronounceable sounds, but she never offered to move in for a closer inspection. The bear stank, the corn stank, the whole night stank, stink embossing the dark murk Wendel’s life had all too suddenly become. He felt hollowed by cold and fear. His life flashed before him for the tenth time since bailing out of Spokane.
Down the line of freight cars the canyon echoed cha-clang cha-cling as the domino of pull yanked them into motion. By the time the train chuffed out of the tunnel Wendel could clearly see the bear eating away and felt right glad of the vegetarian preference. Its paws swiped handful after pawful of corn into its mouth—the Medicine Grizzly, a sacred reality. Wendel tried to calm himself down. Languid words began to dent the night, half-words, a cadence to them—praying, Wendel Ingraham was, of all things, praying. The only catechism prayer he could remember spilled off his tongue. “Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary, never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided… Save me, hear me, please, my daughter doesn’t know me, please, oh Blessed Mother, please.”
Repeated incantations tranquilized the bear enough to allow movement toward the open door. Wendel pushed himself out of the corner as his travelling partner slurped up more of the cidered corn. The train pulled on, grinding and canting—growling through the towering mountains, Wendel’s prayers in rhythm with the wheeling train. Mama steadfastly enjoyed her inebriating binge and did not appear to care what Wendel did. He moved, inches at a time, deliberate and entreatingly.
At the door Wendel considered jumping, but not for long. The train moved through the world at a breakneck clip, passing in and out of tunnels, racing along cliffs, moonlight vanishing as the freighter careened into a bible black gorge. Empowered by a strength he had never before realized, he shimmied to the top of the door and wrested himself atop the car. Speed seeped through him, night. He looked ahead, the cusp of tunnel approaching low and fast. “Whoa cowboy,” he gasped, dropping flat his head, groping at cold metal. The tunnel timbers passed inches from his scalp. Diesel smoke billowed thick and harsh in the underground passage. His throat burned. His muscles burned. His eyes burned. He shut them and waited. When the train cleared the tunnel Ingraham gathered the last of himself and stood up on the whistling freight. He stumbled toward the end of the long train leaping between cars, grabbing at nothing to grab. He looked back toward the front of the long winding train. Morning copper rimmed the horizon, silhouetting the mountains of his childhood.
The trestles stopped coming, the landscape flattened, giving Wendel a breather—time to think. Ten years ago his friend Oakie had been a brakeman riding high in the caboose of this same Hi-line train. Ingraham’s flummoxed mind figured maybe Oakie was on this very train this very morning. He would tightrope the remaining line of corn cars until he arrived at the caboose and tell Oakie, or the brakeman in charge, about the vagabond bear. That and warm up.
Another tunnel nearly decapitated Ingraham. Things were not getting any simpler. Flattened, he peeked over the writhing cars to the angry puff of drilling diesels. “Come up, sun,” he urged, his throat parched, his words frogged. A quivering sun hummed at the lip of the Continental Divide. It had taken Wendel forever reaching the end of the train, forever as the agglutinated sun. The daybreak freeze of Glacier Park took its toll. Time was not helpful. He vaulted to the last car—crawled to the end expecting to see the Great Northern caboose lolly-flopping behind waiting to dislodge his misery. He looked over the edge. No caboose. A little box with a blinking red light sat on the hitch at the end of this last freighter, computer caboose of slipstream time. Old friend Oakie wasn’t there for him as Nancy and the Blessed Virgin had been earlier that night. Looking down over the back of the car, his body trembled. Ties skittered under, rails streaming. He lay poleaxed.
He closed his eyes to recount the events leading up to this inflicted condition. Yes, his wife was a tough woman to love—Spokane Indian that she was, he’d tried his very best. Crosswise to this Nancy was too nice, too easy, ten years after too easy, no effort at all, a falling more than anything. Beyond all this and worst of all, his daughter was gone, separated from him, he from her. Nothing would ever be easy again. His mind began to blank, teeth chattering to couplings of rail. He worked open an eye. The blinking red light of the cyclops stopped blinking and glared back at him.
Nearing the summit the pulling train relaxed, allowing a stark realization—it wasn’t his wife that mattered so much, nor Nancy; it was his life—someday he would need to be there for his little girl.
Bellowing engines echoed, mountains moaned, the train crested Marias Pass. Chuffing released to glide. Boxcars worked the downhill drift. Wendel held tight, lifted his head, and mustered a wail: “There’s no brakeman on this train.”
The Horse Medicine Man