Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Live Story


I was against hiring an intern. I won’t deny that. Live news reporting involves things like fires and car crashes, the aftermath of shootings and explosions – it’s intrinsically hazardous and you have to make decisions on the fly and, sometimes, simple things, like telling people where to stand or when to duck to avoid bullets or shrapnel are hard to communicate. Often, there is a lot of noise, background static, people gawking while they chatter on the phone. Sometimes, a civilian gets mad that the camera crew is exploiting a tragedy and people get pushed or punches are thrown. So I didn’t think it was prudent to assign an intern to the live news crew. The job requires experience. I said: "I’m not going to babysit that girl." "No one expects that," the News Director replied, overruling my objections.

The intern, Malena, was the police chief’s daughter, just graduated from Oberlin and a nice enough girl as well. The news director told me that hiring her for the season would pay off in access. "We’ll get closer to the action," the news director said. "She’s got law enforcement connections. The girl will turn out to be an asset." I disagreed: "The police chief will want to keep her a long wayfrom the bad stuff." "We’ll see," the News Director said.

The first couple months nothing really bad happened. We covered a landslide in the suburbs, but it was really just a property damage gig, no deaths or injuries – I assigned Malena crowd control: she stood a couple dozen feet from the camera and on-air talent, gently steering rubber-neckers away from our shoot. She had a nice smile and a tactful manner and was good in persuading curious locals not to invade our space. There were a couple of fires and an oil spill on the freeway. A man threatened to jump from a construction crane downtown. People were rowdy at that scene, but Malena quieted them down, suggesting, I think, that one or two of the interlopers might get some on-screen time with Jessica Norman, our glamor-girl action news reporter, if they would zip their lips. The man didn’t jump but the interlopers did get a few minutes interview with Jessica, B-roll footage that didn’t make the cut for the evening news. There was a chain collision in the fog where the freeway went over the mountain. Fatalities were reported but I kept Malena away from the casualties – some camera crews think it’s amusing to take pictures of mutilated dead bodies, but, of course, that sort of thing is, more or less, useless: you can’t air the footage both because of standards and practices, as well as privacy concerns, and I had seen enough fragmentary corpses in Iraq and Afghanistan to have lost any interest in taking pictures of them – it’s just bad road kill with clothing over some parts of the carcass. No big deal and, certainly, not the least bit informative.

A gas pipeline ruptured and an explosion shook down some houses and a freeway overpass in the foothills. We rushed to the scene and set up on a cul-de-sac overlooking the calamity. Malena did traffic control while Jessica Norman pointed out various features in the fiery panorama below our vantage. The midday light was harsh and the blades of sharp looking little shadows made everything look mean and angular. I carry a reflector to smooth things out and I had Malena hold it for fill on Jessica’s face. "You make me look good," Jessica said, "and I make you look good." Malena smiled and pointed the reflector and I locked down my camera for another shot and, then, the ground shook underfoot. Tongues of blue flames flickered through the grating in the curbside gutters. Natural gas had seeped into the storm sewers and flash fires roared through the tunnels. One of the explosions lifted a manhole cover about sixty feet from where we were shooting and flung it skyward like a discus. Malena was dropped the reflector and, as a reflex, I threw myself over her as we dived for cover. The manhole clattered against the concrete, spalling it into a shower of shards and pebbles. The wind changed direction and the smoke rolled over our position and, for a few moments, we were lost in the choking fog.

Back at the van, Malena’s face was wet with tears from the smoke in her eyes. We re-shot the footage interrupted by the flying manhole cover and, then, drove back to the studio. Malena said that she would buy me a drink because I had saved her life. I told her that I had done no such thing, but she insisted. We went to a sports bar for a couple of hours. It was a place frequented by Latinos and the TV sets were all tuned to soccer games. It’s surprising how easy it is to ignore a television screen, even a huge one, when you don’t know much about the sport being played and the commentary is in a language you can’t understand. After a few drinks, I told Malena that I sometimes saw dead people. She asked me what I meant. "It’s not a Sixth Sense kind of thing," I told her. "I just have vivid memories about people that I knew who died in war zones." She asked me if it was post-traumatic stress. "Nothing like that," I said. "Just very clear and precise memories." "Does this happen a lot?" she asked. "Not really," I said. "When that manhole cover popped up in the air, I had a flashback – the sound was like an IED. I still have the muscle-memory," I told her.

You resist temptation by avoiding it. I went home before anyone got too drunk. Malena offered to drive me to my place but I declined. "You’re just as drunk as me," I said. "I don’t want the Police Chief’s daughter getting in trouble." She laughed at the idea.

A week later, we were at a scene where a Cessna was shredded against a stony hillside when our scanner picked up the call: Active Shooter at the Transfer Station. We abandoned the Cessna and the forlorn corpses slumped in the underbrush for our van. The navigation system showed us maps and intoned directions. "It’s my Dad’s jurisdiction," Malena said. She took out her cell-phone and called one of the dispatchers. We raced along the boulevards toward the transfer station. Sirens sounded all around us and I could see helicopters converging over a place at the edge of town.

At the first police roadblock, Malena got out of the car and spoke with one of the deputies. He went to his squad car, signaling that we should follow closely behind him. The squad car shot like an arrow along the divided boulevard, running the red lights. We tailed the vehicle at a dozen feet off the cop car’s rear bumper, and, then, came to a second police barricade. The vehicle ahead slowed. A man in a suit, presumably a detective, waved the car forward and we followed, moving in a tight formation down the deserted lane to the police perimeter.

We stopped the van and unloaded our gear on the side of the vehicle opposite the cordon of ambulances and police cars. "Keep out of sight as long as possible," I said as I set up my camera. The sun was bright and the sky clear and the trees along the street reached upward with gestures like ballet dancers. Neat, precise shadows fell across the sidewalk. Other than the sound of police radios muttering back and forth, it was mostly silent and we spoke in whispers. Overhead, helicopters circled like vultures – their rotors made a sultry sound like a ceiling fan. When I peeked around the edge of the van, I saw police tactical squads setting up sniper rifles on tripods and nervously checking tear-gas mortars. The massacre had occurred on the other side of a nondescript warehouse building with vacant loading docks sticking their tongues out at the bright afternoon. Beyond the loading dock, a parking lot glittered with a scatter of cars, probably owned by people who were now dead or dying and, then, there was a low cement wall, a chainlink fence, and the windowless bunker of the transfer station. Some mobile homes dotted the hills above the station and one of them displayed an American flag next to its door.

Jessica Norman stooped to adjust her make-up in the side-mirror on the van. She said that I should not use the tripod and shoot handheld. "It’s more urgent that way," she told me. "This is plenty urgent as it is," I said, twisting the camera onto the tripod.

"Is it a jihadist?" Jessica asked.

"We don’t know," the sound man said.

"Get on the scanner and find out," she demanded.

"I don’t think they know," the sound man said.

"Just call it an ‘active shooter’," I said. Malena was looking intently at a tangle of brush next to the road. A drainage culvert opened out of a retaining wall on the side of a wooded knoll next where we were parked. Beneath the drainage, a little green jungle had sprouted, shrubs and vines and small thorny trees all intertwined.

"There is something moving in there," Malena said.

"A mountain lion?" I asked.

A string of popping sounds came from the Transfer Station. Then, there was a low, gutteral boom. A couple of police from the tactical squad ran forward crouching. For the time being, it seemed as if we were invisible. I supposed that each cop thought that some other police officer had approved our presence.

"I need fill," Jessica Norman said as I locked-down the tripod. "Get the reflector. Otherwise I’ll look like Pinnochio or like I’m sixty years old." She nervously squinted into the sunlight.

Malena was still looking at the ragged-looking little bramble patch under the black socket of the culvert.

"Get the reflector, Malena," Jessica said. "I’m not doing this stand-up without the reflector."

Malena said: "It’s a man."

I looked away from my viewfinder. A man was standing next to Malena. He was wearing dark sunglasses and had a beard that fell like a brown curtain from his chin and his lips. The beard dropped onto the man’s breast and the tips of his whiskers were jagged and silver-colored, making lightning patterns against the blue work-shirt covering his chest. The man’s beard had a sculptural quality, immobile and heavy as if cast in bronze. He reached out his hand toward Malena.

Malena coaxed him forward as if he were some kind of exotic wild animal. She took his extended hand. The man’s hand was grey and waxy and, when she touched him, I felt a kind of instinctual revulsion.

"I was inside, inside..." the man said. His lips moved but not his beard and his eyes were invisible behind the black panes of his sunglasses.

"He says he was inside," Malena told me. "Inside the transfer station."

"I was," the man insisted.

"How did he get out?" Jessica Norman said.

"We were having a retirement party – there was meat and cheese tray," the man said. "There was this guy that none of us knew very well. He was a loner. Stuck to himself and stayed in his own office really most of the time. Something got him mad and he came into the break-room where we were gathered and, then..."

"He started shooting," Malena said.

Another fusillade of shots, as ineffectual, it seemed, as someone popping birthday balloons echoed across the parking lot and loading docks at the nearby warehouse.

"I see him. My god, he’s shooting everyone. He has a gun and he’s very calmly pointing it and firing. And there’s people all around, people falling and screaming and blood, puddles of blood."

A kind of armored car flying a little flag like a pennant crept up the street. A volley of very loud shouts sounded, then, a deep, hollow roar.

The man with the long beard said: "I knew I had to get out. I had to escape. I’ve got a wife and kids and so much reason to stay alive. I said to myself that I was going to escape no matter what, that I would get out of the transfer station, that I would survive regardless of what happened, I kept telling myself that I was going to get out like I was praying..."

"Praying?" Malena asked.

"Praying except maybe just to myself. I don’t know. (He paused). I said that I had to make it out and I did..."

"What is the name of the shooter?" Jessica Norman said.

"He is just some guy. Employed a couple years. Kept to himself."

"A Jihadist, a Muslim or something?"

"I don’t know," the man said. "I never knew his last name."

"But you got out, you survived?" Jessica Norman asked.

I thought I had been filming but, in the excitement, I hadn’t pressed down on the right button to engage the camera.

"Let me redo this," I said.

"How did you get out?" Jessica Norman asked.

"I told myself I had to get out, that I had to make it. Then, I went to the door. But, after that, I’m confused. I don’t recall. I just don’t know. But, suddenly, I’m outside, right here."

Some heavy weapon fired from within the armored personnel carrier and the heavy vehicle rocked from the recoil on its axles. Cops wearing body armor ran up to take shelter behind the armored car. One of the men tripped and fell sideways. Then, there was a very bright flash followed by a concussion.

Without thinking, I flung the camera in the direction of the charging police and the armored car. Through my viewfinder, I saw a small car rolling forward, hidden some of the time behind the pickup trucks and SUV’s in the parking lot. Fountains of glass billowed off the parked cars and, then, the moving vehicle pancaked, dropping down heavily as all of its tires flattened so that its hubcaps spurted off their rims Fire gushed from the vehicle and it slid sideways, bits of metal and chrome skinned off the side of the car and skittering across the concrete.

The gunfire continued for a half-minute and, then, it was silent.

"Did you get that? Did you get that?" Jessica Norman said.

"I got it," I said.

"Let me do my stand-up with the smoke behind me," she said.

The sound man signaled that he was ready for the shot. A thick, serpentine coil of oily black smoke rolled along the lane next to the warehouse. Several police were running toward us, arms extended as if they wanted to seize with their own hands the images that we were shooting.

"They’re going to shut us down," I said.

"Stay on me, stay on me," Jessica Norman said. "Stay on me, until they boot us out of here."

I watched through the viewfinder: Jessica made a grim face and described what we had just seen, stammering a little and the smoke spilled across the background like a great scroll opening and, then, the police manhandled her and knocked me down, dragging us away to a place two-hundred yards to the rear, between a waiting ambulance and a firetruck, a dull corner where nothing much could be seen.

"What happened to the survivor?" Jessica Norman asked.

"I don’t know," Malena said. "I think he got scared and ran away."

"I didn’t see him run away," the sound man said.

"Maybe the police have him in custody," I said.

For a while our vehicle was impounded. The News Director sent another van to retrieve us so that we could get the footage back to the studio. I checked the playback – I had a very clear shot of the shoot-out in the parking lot, images of Jessica Norman flinching a little as the smoke curled around her, then, the cops pushing through the haze and dragging her to the side, thick fists and forearms reaching up to knock my picture out of commission.

"Did you get anything of the survivor?" Malena asked.

"Nothing," I said. "I didn’t have the camera running."

"Bummer," Malena said.

"It happens," I replied.

That night, my hands began to shake. They shook so much that I had to hold my glass of scotch between both palms. I recalled all of the corpses I had seen in war zones. I thought of the faces of the reporters and correspondents that I had known who had been killed doing their jobs. My hands shook so bad that I spilled booze all over my chin and chest.

The next morning, my hangover kept me from going to work. Around midday, Malena called me.

"Did you get my text?" she asked.

"No," I said. "I haven’t looked at my phone."

"Look at your phone," she said. "I’m really freaked-out."

I said that I would call her back.

It took me a while to find my cell-phone. When I lifted the phone, I noticed that the tremor in my hands had gone. On the phone, there was a text-message from Malena: "Look at this video off the news stream on my computer. I don’t know what to say."

I tapped on the screen. The video was a news report about the shooting at the transfer station. The gunman had died in the parking lot, riddled with bullets in his car. I recognized the footage as the pictures that I had taken the previous afternoon. A man in a uniform listed the names of the dead – the gunman had killed eight people. One of the victims looked familiar to me. The dead man grinning at the camera wore black sunglasses and had a long beard drooping down to the middle of his chest. The edges of his beard were silver-grey and frizzy.

I called Malena: "So we interviewed one of the victims."

"How is that possible?" she asked. "He’s dead now."

"He must have been wounded. He must have been badly wounded when we talked to him."

"I didn’t see where he came from," Malena said. "It’s like he just appeared in that brush."

"He must have been shot and left for dead and, somehow, got outside and taken cover in those weeds."

"It’s not like that," Malena said. "I talked to my dad."


"They found the guy with sunglasses and beard inside the transfer station. He had gone to a door that was locked from the outside. He was clawing at the door when the gunman shot him a half-dozen times. He broke his fingernails trying to rip the door open but he couldn’t. It was locked."

Malena paused.

"He said he wanted to get outside." She said.

"He must have got outside," I said. "He got outside and found us and, then..."

"And, then, ran back through the police line to get into the transfer station and, then, go to the corridor with the locked door so that he could die there?"

"It doesn’t sound plausible," I said.

"And with a half-dozen wounds, any one of which would have killed him?"

"I agree that it doesn’t sound plausible."

"Will you check your footage to see if there is any evidence of that man in the stuff we shot?" Malena asked.

"I’ll do that," I said.

That afternoon, I went to the studio and checked all of the raw footage from the reporting that we had done the previous afternoon. There were no pictures of the man with the long beard. In the excitement, I had forgotten to engage the camera. It’s a rookie mistake, but it happens.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Infestation (Title page)


a novella in three parts

John S. Beckmann

September - November 2015


"The Knife Point Glacier is on the eastern side of the continental divide in the Wind River range of mountains in the U. S. State of Wyoming. The glacier is in the Fitzpatrick National Forest in the Shoshone Wilderness among the largest grouping of glaciers in the American Rocky Mountains. Knife Point Glacier flows to the north below the summit of Knife Point Mountain (13,001 feet).

Along with other glaciers in the Wind River Range, the glacier’s rapid retreat after the Little Ice Age of the 1850's has exposed many specimens of the extinct Rocky Mountain locust (melanoplus spretus). The Rocky Mountain locust ranged through the western United States and some parts of western and southern Canada during the 19th century. Sightings placed their numbers far greater than those of other locusts. One swarm observed in 1875 covered 198,000 square miles, an area larger than the State of California and was thought to consist 12.5 trillion insects. Less than 30 years later, the species was apparently extinct. The last recorded sighting of a live specimen occurred southern Canada in 1902. Because a species so abundant and ubiquitous was never expected to become extinct, almost no specimens of the insect were collected. However, recently expeditions have gathered some examples of Melanoplus spretus from the Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming and the Grasshopper Glacier in Montana – at these locations, swarms of locusts were caught in snowstorms and frozen into glaciers. North American is the only continent without a major locust species, apart from Antarctica."

Adapted from Wikipedia and citing Jeff Lockwood, et. al. "Preserved Grasshopper Fauna at Knife Point Glacier, Fremont County, Wyoming" in Arctic and Alpine Research, Vol. 23, p. 1.

Infestation (Part One)





Silky laid her final egg beside the bed, in a tangle of bad-smelling sick-room rags. Anders’ father lifted the bird from the floor and held Silky against his belly. Then, he left the cabin and went outside.

Anders told his mother that it was a harsh thing to punish Silky for laying her eggs in odd places. Anders’ mother blinked her red, moist eyes at her son and mouthed the word "no" by which Anders understood that his father was not killing Silky for that reason.

Anders father came back into the cabin and sat by the bed. Anders looked at him and was about to ask a question. "We have to eat," Anders’ father said before his son could speak. "Despite everything, we have to eat."



For as long as anyone remembered, the people coming on the soldier’s road traveled westward. Whole villages of white men with their women and children and dogs walked toward the setting sun, wagons creaking and canopies on their great-wheeled carts made from white cloth billowing overhead like clouds fallen to the earth. Sometimes, soldiers marched beside them or rode horses, their mounts ill-favored and inferior to our animals – escorts for the people who were migrating across the plains. Cattle came in herds and wandered far and wide and we could take those animals for beef as we wished since they were very tame. Sometimes, the travelers fired their rifles in our direction and we shot back at them, but from long-range so that no one was hurt except by accident. The white people were unreliable and unpredictable – sometimes, they were friendly and generous, but, other times, harsh and cruel. We knew that a great restlessness troubled their hearts and made them wander, always west toward the mountains and deserts where their tent cities were swallowed-up in the immense distances. Along the way, the moving columns cast off human debris, dropped travelers like dung along the roadside and where these people stayed, they built up houses from wooden sticks after living for several seasons in muddy graves that they dug in the prairie. Then, the iron rails came, cutting through the dead lands that the White people had made around their towns, and engines thundered through the night. And still the restlessness afflicted them and on their roads they went westward, driven like their beef-cattle by some invisible herdsman.

But, then, suddenly, it was different. The farmers and townspeople came back from the west. At first, it was only a few – ragged people who moved erratically as if their minds were deranged. Then, more came – whole troops of white people dragging their belongings on carts, too poor to even own oxen, miserable clans who looked like warriors that had gone on a raid in the winter and been ambushed themselves and cut down in great numbers, wounded and afraid as they limped through the mud on their road cut into the buffalo-grass. Now, they were retreating eastward, toward the rising sun, the restlessness gone from their eyes and replaced with something like terror and panic. It would have been an easy thing to attack them and seize those possessions that they had brought with them on the road, but there was nothing that they carried that was of any value to us and their horses were ruined, all dying of starvation, and fear had made them crazy. It is bad medicine to fight with crazy people and since they were emptying the land, fleeing from it as if the clods of dirt and the woods in the stream beds and the distant hills themselves had risen up to repel them, we took counsel among ourselves and said that it was best to leave them alone as they fled from the country that they had once taken on their own. As they walked, we saw that they looked over their shoulders into the sky, as if there were something borne on the winds hounding them along their way.




The Preacher stopped to freshen the mules drawing his buckboard at a well on an homestead. The farm was abandoned, a door left half-open, and some dead livestock colossal with bloat and black as night in the trampled-down pasture between strands of wire on which there were knots like steel thorns. The Preacher had never seen wire made in that way and, when he accidentally, brushed against the taut strand, it ripped his pants next to his knee. He cursed: the strange wire made the deserted homestead seem hazardous to him and there was something wrong with the water that the preacher drew from the well – it was soupy with brownish-green particles and smelled foul and the mules recoiled when he set the bucket under their noses. A glaze of insect wings and tiny crooked legs floated on the surface of the brothy water that he had pulled out of the ground.

A blighted apple tree cast a little shade on a knoll overlooking the wrecked cabin. The Preacher led his mules up the hill, dragging the wagon behind, so that they could rest for a time under the tree while he puzzled over the hand-drawn map that a merchant had made for him in town. Although it was late September and too early for the apple tree to have lost its leaves, the limbs and boughs overhead were as barren as in frosty November. The grass under the tree had been grazed to stubble that the mules nuzzled with their snouts but couldn’t really eat. His map showed the northern part of the county, the east-west road to the fort, and the location of some of the ranch-houses said to be in this area. The Preacher tried to orient himself to the map, rotating it several times in his hands. Some stony hills rose above a ravine filled with dusty-looking skeletons of trees, also blighted and leafless. The merchant had told the Preacher that there was a wooden cross, tall as a tree on one of the hills, a sign marking the way to the church that the Dutchmen had been built, Pilgrim Holiness, the townsman called it, although the Preacher knew the congregation by the words Pilger Heiligkait, the spelling on the penny postcard that he had received calling him to the place. He rummaged in his satchel and found the postcard, examining it in rays of light that seemed embrittled by passing through the naked branches above him. Heiligkait was low-German, an ugly spelling, and the Preacher frowned. He looked away from where he sat with his back to the denuded tree, scanning the ridges for the monument, but there was no sign of it.

The mules snorted, signaling that they were unsatisfied with the short, close-cropped grass around the tree. The Preacher climbed onto the wagon and snapped his reins to make the mules move. As the wagon began to roll, its wheel caught on something that bucked a little under him and, then, snapped. Fearful that his wheel had broken, the Preacher stepped down from the wagon and inspected the undercarriage and running gear – the wheel had crushed a wooden grave-marker, splintering the little lathe sign implanted in the grass. The farmer who had homesteaded this empty hollow had buried a child under the apple tree. The Preacher read the child’s name from the broken wood, bowed his head, and, then, looked up into the sky. In the west, the sun struggled to cast its rays around a lofty greenish-grey pillar of darkness, a column that stood against the horizon glinting with sullen, oppressive menace. The Preacher stared at the huge, dark pillar to see if he could detect lightning churning in its bowels, but the pillar seemed inert, glittering as if made of mineral. The deluge was coming. He would need to find the church and its congregation soon.




The fort had no walls. Two barracks buildings, each with three fireplaces and, therefore, three field-stone chimneys, flanked the parade-ground. The commander lived in a frame house with a verandah and flower-garden and there were some cabins for the officers scattered at intervals on the grassy hillside behind the two-story structure. Cooking was done in a kitchen with a zinc-roof dug-into the slope at the end of the parade-ground nearest the commander’s house. On the opposite side of the parade-ground, there was a bee-hive shaped cairn of stone heaped up over the magazine where the black powder was stored. Fences made from piled thorn enclosed some ponies and a dozen government mules. Since the Indians traded at the sutler’s warehouse, that building stood on a rounded hillock almost a quarter of a mile away, a windowless granary with a couple shacks at its side. Inside the fort, there were three privies: one of the commander and his family, a vine of flowering rose coiled around its frame, one for the officers located equidistant from their cabins, and one for the enlisted men behind one of the barracks.

The absence of a palisade around the fort made the place seem vulnerable. A year after the fort was established, when the officer’s cabins were sod-huts and the enlisted men slept in tents, the commander sent a Ponca scout north, across the river, to invite the Sioux to visit. When the Indian deputation approached, the commander had his artillery sergeant send a round of two-pound shot into their midst, discharging the post’s sole howitzer at the horsemen as they crossed the open prairie. A half-dozen Indians were hurt, some of them badly, and the aggrieved Sioux, who blamed the incident on the Ponca scout, cut off his hands and feet before beheading him. The point had been made, however, and, after that incident, the Sioux gave the fort a wide berth and didn’t even molest the woodcutters sent out for fuel, expeditions that sometimes took several days and traveled as far as the river valley where there were trees in abundance.

Since there had been no hostilities for a half-dozen years or more, Quartermaster Biggens was puzzled that several steers within his purview were missing, apparently rustled from the livestock pens under the cover of night. Quartermaster Biggens was suspicious of the camp sutler, a Welsh trader named Berwyn. Berwyn had a Ponca wife by the custom of the country and his in-laws often pitched their tents near the trader’s warehouse, committing, it was alleged, minor thefts and making a nuisance of themselves when they were drunk. When Quartermaster Biggens learned of the missing steers, either two or three (his accounts were not exact to his embarrassment), he walked to the sutler’s post, adopting a long and aggressive military stance and rigid posture in order to shame Welshman who was a slovenly fellow, nothing soldierly about him. Quartermaster Biggens’ parade-quality strut to Berwyn’s cabin was impaired by several yellow dogs from the Ponca camp. The dogs bayed at Biggens and nipped at his heels so that he lost his composure and kicked wildly at them just as Berwyn emerged from the shadows of his hut, running his dirty fingers through his moustache and shaggy beard.

Berwyn cursed at the dogs and a woman shouted something in Ponca and the animals retreated, slinking away toward the encampment a few hundred feet away. A wagon was drawn up by the warehouse and Quartermaster Biggens saw some miserable-looking, ragged people haggling with one of the sutler’s sons, metis it seemed, half-breeds from the north. Biggens asked if the Ponca had been light-fingered recently to which Berwyn replied with an air of aggrieved indignation that all was well with the camp’s "Indian allies." Biggens said that some steers had gone missing. Berwyn replied that they had probably wandered away since the fence enclosing them was not of the soundest quality and, even, prone to breach in squally weather. "I am quite certain that the animals have been misappropriated," Quartermaster Biggens said. Berwyn replied: "About that, sir, I know nothing."

One of the wretched looking people by the wagon approached Berwyn and Quartermaster Biggens. As he came closer, Quartermaster Biggens saw that the miserable fellow was some sort of a white man, a beggar, perhaps, or one of the drifters, sometimes, encountered on plains. The man looked terribly thin and his eyes were yellow around the edges, a deep almost crimson color that seemed to seep into the wrinkles around his eye-sockets. He was wearing a ragged buffalo-skin coat and Biggens wondered if the fellow had been a bison-hunter, now deprived of his occupation by the extinction of the animals that had previously roamed the land around the fort.

Berwyn waved that the man should return to the transaction, apparently at an impasse, with his son. Quartermaster Biggens looked more carefully and saw that one of the tattered scarecrows leaning against the wagon was a woman and that a small child was groveling in the dirt beneath her. The oxen that had drawn the wagon to the sutler’s post were emaciated, their ribs showing under hides that were ulcerated with sores.

"Those are the most miserable white people that I have ever seen," Quartermaster Biggens said.

"They are ruined," Berwyn replied. "They have lost just about everything."

"If they can’t trade with you," Quartermaster Biggens said, "they should come to the fort and, perhaps, I can help them to some surplus provisions."

"That would be a crime," Berwyn said. "Those provisions are held in trust for the soldiers and the federal government of the United States."

"What’s the benefit to you?" Biggens asked. "If they have nothing to trade."

"There is always something to trade," Berwyn replied.

"Indeed," Biggens said. He repeated his question to the sutler about the steers gone missing.

"I didn’t hear exactly how many beef cows have vanished," Berwyn said. Quartermaster Biggens knew that the Welshman kept the most minute accounts.

"We will have to perform an audit," Quartermaster Biggens said.

"Who do you suspect?"

"It would not be gallant for me to suggest that, perhaps, there has been an misunderstanding involving some of your kinsmen," Quartermaster Biggens said, glancing at Berwyn’s wife now standing disheveled in the doorway of their cabin.

"My kinsmen are across the sea," Berwyn said, emphasizing his Welsh brogue. He waved his hand toward the decrepit-looking encampment on the hill, some smoke leaking from cook-fires and some fly-blown ribbons of meat parching on racks watched by starving dogs. "Those folk are blameless," Berwyn said. "You have my word on it."

"I will have to ask Major Goodweather to deputize a search party," Biggens said.

"That would be prudent," Berwyn replied. "Perhaps, the Sioux have been skulking about here."

"I don’t think that is the case," Biggens said.

"Well, then, they say that Morgan’s herd has increased remarkably," Berwyn said. "The misery of others makes him wealthy. Perhaps, your cows are with him."

"If that’s true, we’ll take them from his ranch," Biggens replied.

Berwyn shrugged.

"In any event, there will be a search party," Biggens said.

Before he turned to return to the fort, Quartermaster Biggens said loudly: "Any honest man in need is welcome to come to the fort for aid." He hoped that the ragged White people bargaining with Berwyn’s son would hear his words and, in fact, the scrawny child scratching in the dirt cocked an ear, but the adults didn’t seem to attend to what the Quartermaster had said.

"I can help just as well," Berwyn said. "And there is always a little profit to be made."





Two enlisted men and a Ponca scout named George were dispatched to locate and retrieve the missing steers, said by Quartermaster Berwyn to "number about three." Major Goodweather told them to ride toward the river, interrogate the Indians and settlers in the region, and travel as far as Morgan’s ranch.

The men rode from the Fort north toward the Malpais and buttes around the river. On a height of land, they paused to survey the terrain. Crumpled-looking ridges spiked with small pine trees rose above ravines where exposed faces of gravel and sand were eroding into dry, pebble-clogged watercourses. Some table land suitable for farming spread toward the eastern horizon but seemed to have been burned. The landscape was speckled with places where something like fire had raged, dark brown, scuffed zones dozens of acres in extant where the grass was ravaged and the small trees charred to skeletal and barren scaffolds of branch and bough. On the western horizon, a butte was hunkered down with the profile of huge caterpillar grazing on the prairie and a dark column stood in the sky, slowly rotating under heavy and ornate clouds.

"Mighty big place to have to search," Private Anderson said.

"And a storm coming," Lieutenant Williams replied.

George had walked a half-dozen paces from them to make water.

Anderson called out to George: "You sure this ain’t got something to do with your cousins."

George spit. "My cousins got nothing to do with this. It’s the Sioux."

"I don’t like the look of that cloud," Lieutenant Williams said.

They climbed back onto their mounts and sauntered down the hill.




It is a hard thing to have raised a child from the dead and, then, to be sent forth in the world to preach the gospel and care for the sick and clothe the naked and visit those who are confined in prisons. A hard thing to have a resurrection looming over you, a great turbulent miracle always at your back and pressing you forward and whispering in your ears that you must continue this ministry and its great works even if the flesh is weak and the spirit sore and afraid. The Preacher hesitated, surveying the wilderness before him and, then, as his wagon jolted forward, made certain resolutions, imposing on himself these decrees – this time, he would take no money in exchange for his prayer and he would make no promises and his supplication to God would be framed from perfects words of power and might. He would be disinterested and not seek any personal profit in the misdeeds or misfortunes of others. He would be guided solely by the Holy Spirit and not by any spirit of envy or lust or greed. But it is a hard thing to have once performed a miracle and, then, to lose the power and feel the weariness within and the desolation, the spiritual aridity that is like a mountain of burning gravel in the breast.

Pilgrim Holiness was somewhere in this maze of rock ridges and shallow dusty ravines, midway between the villages of Weeping Water and Tecumseh according to the railroad prospectus. The railroad ran to the north cutting through the badlands and crossing the great windy basins where hunters riding in their Pullman cars behind the locomotives once could shoot buffalo from their windows as well as grouse and pronghorn antelope. This territory, according to the real estate speculators and the railroad advertisements, was a land flowing with milk and honey, dry to be sure, but only because the sod had never been cut by plow, a vast empire of great latent wealth, soil so rich that when the bare, naked telegraph poles were inserted into the prairie after a year or two they had sprouted branches green with leaf and cast shade all around them. The absence of rivers and lakes could be readily explained by two phenomenon: first, rain follows the plow and, when the earth is harrowed and cut, great clouds of moisture locked in the grass-covered soil are released and rise upward to form clouds and those clouds bless the terrain with rain so that growing things flourish. And, second, the heat of the sun has driven the glacial snow-pack accumulated each winter underground, into the protective womb of the earth to be preserved and distilled, and no sooner is the ground slit open to a depth of eight or nine feet than at the sandpoint water froths forth sweet as wine. This was the nature of the land, according to the real estate speculators and the railroad company whose trains now brought immigrants into this new territory and with only a little labor, any one could make the desert flower and bring abundance to the fields so that what seemed a desert would one day be a vast granary. The Preacher shaded his eyes against the sun and looked anxiously over his shoulder at the black column standing rooted between earth and sky, like a lady’s black leather patent boot stabbed into the prairie, and he thought that if the railroads and the real estate agents had been so completely wrong about the land and its attributes, then, probably, Tecumseh and Weeping Water were also fictional, fraudulent titles for platted pieces of desert where no one lived, and, even, the church built to serve the multitude of immigrants into the territory, even that place didn’t exist, but was merely someone’s notion of what should exist. But the Preacher had the penny postcard and it told him about the plight of the congregation and the author of the writing said that he (it was a man’s harsh angular script) had known the clergyman in the camps above the treeline in the Sierra Nevada and at Creede where the Preacher had raised a child from the dead and, therefore, was convinced that he could cast a miracle over their present plight and save them from the plague that had beset them. Surely, the postcard was not a hoax on the order of the railroad’s assertion that this wilderness was a place of bounty and abundance and, so, the Preacher forged on, following the hand-drawn map, really just a sketch, that the rancher had given him at the station, scanning the tops of hillsides for the pilgrim cross.

Of course, the child wasn’t really dead at Creede and he wasn’t really a preacher, then, either, just a man known to read his Bible from time to time, something that was a rarity in the booming silver camp and, when people died, mangled in the mines or blue and frozen among the high peaks or crushed flat from tuberculosis, he could be counted on to say a few words at their obsequies, something dignified and suitable and, even, ornamented with verse from Holy Scripture and a prayer. No one said that he was a preacher, then, but, rather, just an useful person, capable of speaking in both English and German, an attendant at funerals who could be relied upon as, more or less, sober and unlikely to say something true, if scandalous, about the deceased. And, it was in this capacity, that the Preacher, who was not then a preacher, was asked to speak some scripture and, perhaps, pray over the corpse of a child, a small girl, who was either the sister or daughter of a young prostitute come to the silver camp to ply her trade. The child rested on a bier of furs and ladies’ underwear, kimonos and a velvet-lined smoking jacket that one of the older whores affected, and the mother (or sister, perhaps) said that the little girl had just died and that she needed the preacher to say some words of solace over her tiny corpse. A bouquet of prostitutes were weeping floridly in one corner of the dirt and stone dug-out, lamenting loudly as if to proclaim that grief and sorrow were the only true and dependable things in life and a couple of miners who had fortified themselves with gin were also sobbing and muttering vague threats that couldn’t be said to be against any specific person or place or thing but were simply expressions of rage, and snow was flickering in the cold skies over Creede, like the tails of bunny rabbits fleeing upward, big, feathery flakes sliding down across the great, split escarpment looming above the camp. The preacher stood over the child, searching his memory for some suitable thing to say, and, as he looked down at the girl, he saw that her cheeks were still flushed, hectic. Some force was still infusing blood into her cheeks and the Preacher said to one of the drunk miners that he had never seen a corpse with so pink and fresh a color, most corpses were yellow or pale as candle-tallow. So the preacher put his hand on the child’s forehead and felt the warmth gathering there under his palm, an indisputable warmth that he knew meant life, and, so, instead of reciting Bible verses about death and the heavenly city of Jerusalem where weeping is no more, on impulse, he said: "Tabitha, arise!" And no sooner were those words spoken, then, the child coughed and stirred and, then, sat upright and the people all around shrieked with joy. The miners took the preacher across the muddy street to a shack where spirits were available and, when he was good and drunk, three of the whores led him to their wagon and warmed him up for the night and, in the morning, the mud and horse dung and disorderly mounds of spoil were all covered with snow and it was silent and the great stone faces of the mountain were like the ramparts of a mighty cathedral.

From that time, he had gone about dressed as a preacher, with a tattered black frock coat with double tails, a black hat, and a clerical collar. After all, he was a man who had raised a child from the dead at the mining camp of Creede in the State of Colorado and there were people who were willing to pay him for words of comfort and words of might. The Preacher was willing to oblige and he, even, attempted a few miracles from time to time, but, always, just before leaving town so that any disappointment arising from failures in those endeavor would remain behind him, or, at worst, pursue him only to the county line.

The trail was rocky and led between abandoned farmsteads set in the shelter of the hills folded around the dry riverbed. He had passed four farms, all of them deserted and ruinous, and wondered if these decrepit cabins and breached thorn and briar corrals together constituted the hamlet of Weeping Waters or, perhaps, Tecumseh, a settlement spread out across a mile in the narrow valley. Perhaps, the waters were said to "weep" because they no longer flowed in the streambed, the ghost of a creek inscribed in channels of braided pebbles and sand. The track was intricate and his mules kept stumbling and the Preacher had his eyes fixed on the way ahead of him when he heard something like a thunder, a sullen booming noise that was more of a heavy thud than anything else. Instinctively, the Preacher looked up in the sky to where the black snout of cloud had reached down to the earth but there was no lightning flashing there, just a greyish-green darkness diffused around the pillar of the storm. The booming sound had come from another direction, toward the head of the valley. The noise sounded again, a hard crash like a heavy door being swung shut. It didn’t sound like a bell, nothing at all like a bell, but surely Pilgrim Holiness was near this place and who knew what kinds of bells had been forged to sound over this wilderness.

"I will do better," the Preacher told himself. "I will take no money in specie and accept payment only in the hospitality of those who I have come to assist."

He had made that vow before, unsuccessfully, but it didn’t hurt to repeat those words to himself as something crashed loudly a third time somewhere in the involuted bluffs ahead of him.



They moved suddenly and without warning like a flock of starlings flinging themselves from their roosts skyward all at one time on some secret impulse. Anders did not understand why they moved and had no words sufficient to question anyone about breaking camp. It might happen at any time, even during the dead of night, men setting out in advance of the other people as if to scout the way for them except that sometimes the women and children and old folks went in a direction opposite to the horsemen and met them a day, or, sometimes, two days later. No one seemed to know how long they would walk – an hour or two, or, perhaps, half a day or, sometimes, both a day and a night without respite, endlessly trudging until someone collapsed or a halt had to be called for a woman to give birth or an old man to die. On the march, Anders pushed a small wheelbarrow that his father had given him. Around his neck and over his shoulder, he carried a feed-bag heavy with a kind of meal from which the women sometimes made a bland porridge that smelled like old, spilt beer. The feed-bag was heavy and the strap cut into his skin and rubbed places on his shoulder and collar-bone raw. If he fell behind, an old woman came with a stick and thumped him hard across the buttocks and thighs. Anders was afraid that if he became separated from the band, the hungry dogs that skittered around the marching people would harass him with bites to the ankles and calves. He was also afraid of losing his way in the gloomy dry creek beds or the sandy hills spiny with yucca plant and slippery with loose pebbles. As he walked, Anders sometimes unknotted a rag that he had tied around the prayer book that his mother had given him, a small brown volume that he could hold in the palm of his hand, its battered cover marked with a simple yellow cross. Also wrapped in the rag, a bit of cloth torn from one of his mother’s dresses, was a locket made from brass and shaped like an acorn. Inside the locket was a filament of his mother’s hair, pale and greyish and braided like a whip. When Anders tried to remember his mother’s face, he could only recall the way that she looked when she was dying and this was not something that he wished to bring to mind and so, it was best, to not think about her at all. Instead, Anders thought of her hen, a fluffy, fat Cochin, called Silky. The hen was very tame and laid her eggs in the most comical places: in an old shoe or coffee cup or shovel. Anders recalled holding the warm hen in his lap and stroking her bright feathers and, then, he thought of her eggs with their perfectly round yokes as bright and yellow as the sun. It seemed to odd to him that he could recall Silky better than his own mother.

When the band made camp, the horsemen would put their ponies in a corral made from thorns and everyone would eat beside fires that oozed stinging smoke from burning manure and tarry brush that grew in the river beds. The dogs would fight and yelp and, then, the boys would also fight, wrestling with one another and trying to topple their opponents into the embers from the fires to burn their backs and shoulders. Anders was not as strong as the other boys and when they grappled with him, he was always thrown into the cinders and held down until burns covered his back from his neck to waist. He screamed with pain but no one paid any more attention to him than they paid to the dogs wounded in the fights always underway in the darkness outside the flicker of the red light from the campfires.

Sunrise meant nothing to the people in the encampment. Often no one stirred from their lodges until noon or mid-afternoon when the men took their ponies from the enclosure and raced them along the ridge-tops yipping at one another like coyotes. Sometimes, there was greasy meat to eat, roasted on sharpened sticks, and the women and girls seemed always bent double under loads of twigs and thorny brush or carrying buckets of water from the stream. It was good not to rise early in the morning because at this time of year the mornings were cold and steam came from the muzzles of the ponies in their thorn corral and steam rose as well from their manure and urine. In camp, people moved slowly, limping as if wounded by the treks that they had made to reach their bivouac, and young men and girls held hands and walked among the trees by the river-banks, many of them mutilated by the swarms that had come from the sky, and the old men sat on the hilltops alone, singing to themselves and looking steadily into the sun as if for inspiration, still as stone statues on the bluff-tops. Anders was mostly left alone except by the older boys who beat him and threw pebbles at his eyes and tried to knock him over into the cinder beds of fires that had been extinguished to blacken his torso and burn his shoulders. But, once, when this was happening, and an older boy was rolling Anders back and forth in the soot and ash, a young woman emerged from her lodge and shouted at the older boy, saying something to him that made the boy blush and, to show her that he was not afraid of pain himself, the older boy took a sliver of wood, lit it in another campfire, and burned the back of his wrist while singing a song to taunt her. The young woman ignored him and took Anders into her lodge. Although he could not understand most of what she said, the woman explained that her first-born son had drowned while crossing a river. The woman’s daughter spoke a few words of English and she named her dead brother, but this was confusing because the boy had been called "First Born" but that was also his status in the family, and so, Anders didn’t know whether the dead child was being referred to by his name or his rank in the family or both at the same time. This sort of thing baffled him and made his head hurt.

The young woman gave Anders a blanket and the little girl said that they would take care of him because he reminded her mother, whose name was "Like the Dew," of her son who had drowned. After that time, things were easier for Anders and he learned the names of dogs that accompanied the band and made friends with the boys who had previously tried to hurt him by burning his back and shoulders in the campfires and, gradually, without knowing that he understood, he heard words spoken by the people and knew what they meant. He no longer feared the marches between encampments but liked to walk ahead of the old women and men, trampling down the grass for them, and, once, a warrior took him on horseback and they rode swift as the wind to a high place and looked back upon the land that they had crossed and Anders felt very light and free as if he had been flying on the wings of an eagle.




Morgan’s black cattle were spilled across a gold-brown hillside. Three ranch-hands were stretching wire between posts, fingers and fists protected by fat leather mittens. It was the new wire with knotted barbs to simulate thorns and George rode up to the taut steel strand, sliding his finger along the wire to test the sharpness of the points woven into the fence. The ranch-hands looked up from their task nervously – they had the wire under tension and seemed to be afraid that it might spring away from them and coil itself again on a wooden spool that their mule had dragged into the ravine.

Lieutenant Williams shouted a greeting to the ranch-hands and asked if they had seen any new cattle in the hills. "Sometimes, a runaway steer will just join another man’s herd," Lieutenant Williams said. Private Anderson held a spy-glass to his eye, inspecting the animals scattered across the sloping terrain.

"Don’t know," one of the ranch-hands said. He brushed a fly away from his nose with the clumsy leather mittens.

"You can go on up to the house if you got questions of that nature," another man said. There was a slight edge of anger in his voice.

"I’m just wondering if you’ve detected any cattle of unknown origin around these parts," Lieutenant Williams said.

"Your man’s eyeballing our herd," the ranch-hand said. The other two men stood apart, squinting as if they didn’t understand English.

"No offense," Private Anderson said. "Mighty fine beef-cattle."

"None taken," the ranch-hand replied. "Why don’t you just go on up to the house and get yourself something to eat? There’s a storm coming."

He pointed at the black column in the sky.

"The Indians took the cattle," Lieutenant Williams said. "At least that’s what we think. So we’re inclined to push-on, at least to the river or the train-tracks."

"You cut yourself to pieces on that wire," George said contemplatively, more or less to himself.

"Do you know of any hostiles in the area?" Lieutenant William asked.

The ranch-hand shook his head. "None, that I seen," he replied. "But I met a trapper near the river. He was checking his lines and told me that he met some Sioux, maybe a raiding party, up by White Clay. He kept his distance. Some cut-hairs on the reservation told him that the Indians had a white boy, or, maybe, a girl with them."

"Poor bastard," Private Anderson said.

"Were they driving any cattle with them?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"All I know is what I done told you," the ranch-hand said.

Williams tipped his hat. "Much obliged," he said.

They rode along the edge of the ranch, skirting the strand of wire and new fence-posts still smelling of the adze and sap and sweet woodshavings.

"We should go up to the house for supper," Private Anderson said.

"No," Lieutenant Williams replied. "Didn’t you hear? We have a chance to achieve something noteworthy."

"What is that?’

"The rescue of a white prisoner from his savage captors," Lieutenant Williams said. "That would be a most impressive enterprise."

"The two of us and a Ponca scout?" Private Anderson asked.

"The fewer the company, the more praiseworthy the endeavour."

"The house is miles away anyhow," George said. "This ranch keeps growing. When the farmers move out, Morgan buys their land. It would take us an hour to get there."

"Hopper sales at hopper prices," Private Anderson said.

"Someone always profits," Lieutenant Williams remarked. "It’s the way of the world."

They rode in silence, Private Anderson ticking off the number of fence-posts, counting them silently, lips only slightly moving as his horse jolted forward. After a few minutes, they came to deep crater, black with cinders and ash. At the center of the crater, there was a sort of wigwam of smashed lathe and joists. The wigwam smelled strongly of kerosene and, next to it, a couple of cracked barrels were bedded in the soot, leaking a green foul-smelling mucous.

"They had smudge fires here," Williams said. "Kept off the pests. See, they’re ready to set it ablaze right now, at a moment’s notice, if the plague returns. The fire burns on carcasses collected from the swarm. That’s what’s in the barrels and the smoke produced is so foul that it takes your breath away, it poisons the sky."

"Does that work?" Private Anderson asked.

"Seems to," Lieutenant Williams said.

The hills rose more steeply beyond the ranch. George went ahead of them, sweeping back and forth on his tough, little pony, crossing the path of their plodding march a half-dozen times as he searched for signs of the missing cattle or the raiding party. George’s horse scrambled up tilted clay slopes, heaps of reddish-blue earth, streaked with parallel gouges made by the rain, and, then, in a puff of dust, dropped down into shallow trenches and sandy pits. In this way, they proceeded through the difficult country, breathing heavily with the exertion of picking a path forward, until they came to a kind of cross-roads, ruts running down from the table-land toward a bowl-shaped marsh with tall cattails and a little lagoon of open water. Some moors rose against the sky where wheatfields had once been.

"This is the lane down to the church," Lieutenant Williams said.

"I attended a wedding at that church," Private Anderson said. "A year ago. There was a village and some nice farms."

"It’s all ruined now," Williams said.

"They had a bell smelted from cannons captured in the Battle of Sedan. Sent from Prussia after one of those European wars," Private Anderson said. "It was very heavy and I helped them hoist it into the steeple. We had a winch and a pulley and levers, but it was still terribly heavy and I was afraid that the scaffolding wasn’t sufficient, that it would collapse under the weight of the bell."

"Did it collapse?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"No," Private Anderson said. "But we were afraid to ring it at first. Once we had the bell up on high, in that wood tower, the steeple, the preacher said we should ring the bell but we were afraid that the vibrations would tear the tower down and drop the bell and crack it. That bell was a gift from Bismarck and the Prussians and so it was special."

"What good is a bell that you can’t ring?"

"Exactly," Private Anderson said. "So we made it chime. We tolled that bell and swung it back and forth so that the clapper pounded on the iron from those melted cannons and it boomed, it boomed just like artillery. I heard cannons at Cold Spring and Richmond and this bell made a sound just like those cannons, boom! boom! boom! The whole church shuddered like in a gale."

George reappeared, his horse cantering toward them, and, then, as if to announce, his arrival, there was a sound like thunder rolling across the marsh and lagoon and the flat-lands where wheat had once been grown.



The preacher wondered whether the booming sound that he heard was a great bell tolling, somewhere far away in the wilderness. He wondered if the wind and the hollow country had molded the sound of the bell into something like the noise of a subterranean explosion, the sort of dismal underground thud that you heard in the gold or silver fields when the miners were blasting for ore in their deep shafts.

The country was complex with narrow twisting ravines and slender ribs of high ground brooding over terraces where there had once been small farms with wheat fields and orchards. The earth was denuded, grass razored down to a seedless seared-looking stubble too ravaged to feed a sparrow and the trees were raw diagrams of branch and trunk, bark scuffed away and a raw, pulpy fiber extruding from boughs where the leaves had once been. The prospect was the same in all directions, a dreary, featureless place, wasteland without any trace of green, nothing growing, a place salted into desolation by the sky. In every seam of the terrain, a pulp of dead insects seethed and oozed, as if the rotting winged shells were extruded from within the earth. The dead land made the mules skittish and they balked and would not pass over the sour-smelling windrows of dead locusts. From somewhere within the wilderness, an intermittent hollow roar sounded.

"Is that a bell?" the Preacher said to his mules.

The mules pricked up their ears. They would go no farther.

He called them by their names: "Balaam" and "Methuselah."

The mules nodded to him, and twitched their leathery ears, but would not continue. Instead, they leaned sidways, pawing the naked, grey earth.

When the wagon turned, the Preacher saw that the column in the sky standing behind him had changed. It seemed to be sending out tentacles in all directions and the high black spine of the storm was collapsing. Puffs of hot wind full of some element that tingled and burned in the nose came from the clouds. He jumped from wagon and led the mules, walking ahead of them and avoiding the pits and ditches full of rotting insects, greyish pools that seemed to exude a faint sulphur mist like hot springs.

A rider came toward him, mouth open in a kind of howl, but the wind ripped away the man’s words. The rider circled the mules and wagon and, then, shouted that it was coming and that they should seek shelter and that the ranch-house was a quarter-mile away, cupped in the hills. The preacher followed the rider as the wind began to whip though the ravines. They passed a fence-line and, then, a trench that smelled of kerosene and the land was green again and the trees bright with leaves fluttering in the wind gusting from the storm. The ranch-house was large with a two-story gallery porch and people were standing on that verandah as if it were the prow of a ship looking toward the storm that was now toppling forward over the land. The Preacher glimpsed a bunkhouse and zigzagging wood corral where the horses were diving and plunging, wild in the face of the winds now sweeping up the valley. The rancher with his head in a halo of white whiskers stepped down from his porch and, in the gathering darkness, the inside of the big house seemed to flicker with candle-light.

"Say a prayer for us, Reverend," the rancher said, extending his hand.

A man came and took the mules and wagon aside, into a stable that was painted red as a fire engine.

The storm came with wind flinging dust and sand but without thunder or lightning. In the other direction, the bell continued its sullen cannonade.


Sometimes, before dawn, the wind poured from the stony turrets and steeples of eroded earth, a gale coming from the badlands that shook the lodges and caused their poles to flex like a bow about to fire an arrow and made the buffalo hide chatter and flap. This awoke Anders and, as he waited in the darkness, bad thoughts came to him and, sometimes, made him cry, although he was careful to clamp his teeth shut so that no one would hear him whimper. Anders recalled the stinging, clinging swarm from the sky, the millions of eyes and the tiny feet and legs that were like infinitely small saw-blades cutting into your flesh – the creatures clung to you like thistles, like cockle-burrs, and were impossible to dislodge. And, then, he remembered being sick all the time and the chickens dying after laying eggs that were green and foul inside, the hens perishing until only Silky remained, and, then, his sisters crying out as if suffering nightmares except the nightmares did not cease and, then, they were dead and he recalled his father shoveling dirt into their eyes – was it possible that their eyes were wide open when they were buried or was this merely something that he had dreamed? He remembered the rotten potatoes, skins like sacks holding black, wizened filth that was inedible, the spoiled milk and the hard cured meat that was so salty that if you ate it, thirst kept you up all night, and, then, his mother was sick and she said that she was dying and wanted to bless Anders but Anders told her that she would not die, that she would soon be better, but there was no food for her, nothing but soup that his father made from roots and bark that he collected outside, and, then, he recalled rocking back and forth on his knees until he was so sore that he could pray no longer and, so, went outside and looked at the stars and the moon and heard the coyotes crying and, even, packs of wolves in the hills and he wondered if the wolves would come down from the wilderness to steal the bodies of his sisters buried in their shallow graves behind the cabin...

Then, the wind stopped and it was still and he heard the whole band of people sleeping peacefully, could pick out the snoring of different men and old women and children, people that he knew by name, heard old men farting peacefully in their lodges, listened to the ponies snorting in their thorn pen, and it was not yet time to arise, this was a lazy day in camp with nothing much to do, and so Anders closed his eyes and wiped the tears off his cheeks and, then, he was asleep like everyone else and dreaming...



The darkness boiled over the land. A day before, the Preacher had come to a high place overlooking a great river. Then, broken clouds dappled the landscape and the river flowed through places where the stream had cut its banks into mud cliffs perforated with holes in which small birds nested. All the colors in the world seemed very vivid to him and, even, the burned places running in swaths toward the horizon were smeared with the faint green of new and early growth.

In his vest pocket, the Preacher carried the Gospel and Habermann’s prayers both printed in German. He halted his wagon and sat on the turf, leaning against the wheel, the battered stub of a pencil in his hand. The spine of Habermann’s prayer manual was damaged and half detached from the yellow pages in the small book, a volume not much larger than a pack of playing cards.

He found the prayer for comfort in a thunderstorm, and began to rewrite it in English:

Most Mighty God! All the powers of the earth shall honor thy holy name and worship thee in the beauty of holiness. For thou art the Lord who reigneth over all. Thou showest thy might and power throughout the universe and thy voice is upon the waters. The Lord of glory thundereth. The earth shook and trembled and the foundations of the hills moved and were shaken. There went up smoke out of thy nostrils and fire out of thy mouth and the heavens are kindled with it and, by thy command, there cometh the creeping locust, the stripping locust, and the gnawing locust and they have harkened to thy decree and become a scourge to us. For out of the smoke has come locusts upon the earth and power given unto them as the scorpions of the earth have power. And all of this is thy judgement executed upon us for our sins and to wrest from our stubborn hearts repentance to please thou. But the Lord will give strength unto His people. The Lord will bless his people if they are truly contrite and humble before Him. O merciful god, preserve us from thy wrath and from the devastation of the caterpillar and locust and stretch out thy hand and deliver them unto us for thou has given them to us to eat in all their kinds, the devastating locust and the cricket and the grasshopper. And thou shall spread out thy hands and devour them up as did John in his garments of camel’s hair and his leather belt upon his waist in the wilderness when he did sup upon locusts and wild honey . Forgive us our sins! Make thy face shine upon us. Protect us in body and soul, our house and home and our fields and orchards. Keep the fruits of the fields from the jaws of destruction and the inundation by the swarms of the sky. O Holy God preserve us from an evil death and protect us so that no disaster befall thy people. Amen.
He read the words to himself and was satisfied with them. In the proper place, in circumstances of desperation, men would pay silver and gold for those words. But he was resolved that he would not commit simony and that he would pour the words out freely when the time came and that he would pour himself out with them like a canteen that is emptied into the desiccated dirt of the desert.

He heard a babble of voices commenting on the storm as it approached. Behind him, on the gallery in the front of the ranch house people were gathering. The rancher repeated his words: "Pastor, will you say a prayer for us?"

The Preacher walked away from the two-story verandah of the ranch house, his face turned upward to the tumult in the sky. The rancher, white hair rippling in the sudden gusts of cold hair, accompanied him into the teeth of the wind.

"I was called to Pilgrim Holiness," the Preacher said. "But I couldn’t find the church."

"No church to be found," Morgan said. "The third or fourth time, the swarm descended on them, they ripped the church down and burnt it in bonfires to drive off the locusts."

"What happened to the congregation?"

"Starved out, busted flat, the women went mad and the babies died – the men sent their families back East by train and lit out themselves for the gold fields."

"You’re still here?"

Morgan looked at the Preacher and squinted through his little red and wind-burned eyes. His face was all wrinkled and cracked around them.

"Ain’t been touched yet and I don’t mean to be touched now," Morgan said.

The wind bucked in some laundry hanging on a line between two stick-built sheds. Smoke boiled out of one of the sheds and a laundress emerged, squat with wet, steam-laden hair and cock-eyed. The laundress grinned at the Preacher, showing her teeth which were small and regular and yellow as corn.

Darkness dropped down to gouge the prairie and the distant hills vanished under the approaching storm, a blue-green shadow that seemed filled with whirling pale particles. A woman’s voice sounded in one of the upper rooms of the ranchhouse, keening as if over a dead child. At the edges of the property, the hands had lit fires and the Preacher smelled kerosene and saw pillars of greasy fire ascending into the sky

"If you have a prayer, you should say it," Morgan told him, turning toward the two-story veranda of his home where people stood – children and girls, an Indian woman with a red blanket draped over her shoulders, dapper young men, apparently brothers, an Irish maid in a white bonnet, all gathered as if on the prow of a boat advancing into dark and stormy waters. The people watching the clouds plunging toward them were like an audience in a theater and, so, the Preacher took from his vest pocket the scrap of paper on which he had written the prayer and held it before his eyes and, then, raising his right hand above his head, began to recite.

The laundress rushed from the shed and fell to her knees gripping him around his hips. She smelled of sweat and lye and tallow soap. The wind dragged the Preachers word’s from out of his mouth and he couldn’t hear himself speaking.



For two weeks, they moved every other day, skirting a maze of eroded ravines full of rattlesnakes and slippery gravel between knife-edge ridges where the wind unfurled red and green-grey banners of blowing dust. They followed trails made by deer and antelope to bowl-shaped hollows in the badlands and camped there as if hiding. An old man died and was wrapped in his blankets and put in the fork of a tree and, after they went away from that place, Anders turned to look over his shoulder and he could see somber, black-winged birds gathering to circle overhead and this caused him to imagine his mother, and, even, say her name, but he could not bring to mind her face or the way that she moved or any of her gestures and, when he tried to recall her voice, he heard only the dogs barking along the trail and the sounds of the horses and the children babbling as if half-asleep and the iron pots and knives and the men’s weapons clinking as they marched across the barren country. Then, one morning, because he had misunderstood a word spoken the night before, he woke up and went from the lodge expecting that the people would rise and move once more, but no one was stirring, the dogs curled up next to the embers of the fires from the night before, and the horses sleeping where they stood, a most amazing thing he thought, to sleep standing upright, a couple coyotes barking on a hilltop far away and the moon still slumbering also, pitched in the pale blue sky like a teepee made from bison skin dipped in lime. Then, unsought, Anders recalled his mother and could see her very vividly in his mind’s eye – she was lying by the smoky hearth in their cabin, motionless, her lips cracked and dry and her eyes sunken, and Anders’ father was kneeling at her side, muttering something like a prayer under his breath or, perhaps, cursing, and she had soiled herself so that there was a strong, foul smell in the cabin and her face was inert and round as a drain through which what little remained of her life was fast flowing away and Anders asked: "Is she alive?" and his father merely turned to him and shrugged and this made Anders think that his mother was sleeping although, certainly, she seemed very still and there was a not a flicker of any kind under her eyelids when he called out to her. Anders was afraid that his father would put his mother into the ground before she was truly dead and, so, he thought that he should hold a vigil beside the bed and the hearth that was smoking so as to burn his eyes because the twigs and grass burning there were of poor quality, the locusts having devoured most everything else that could be used for fuel... But, despite his resolve to remain awake, Anders closed his eyes because the sour smoke was stinging in them and, then, fell asleep because he was so terribly hungry and the hunger went away only when he was sleeping. Then, he opened his eyes and saw his father washing his mother’s body, but, now, she seemed quite alive, moving as if to assist him and he saw that her eyes had flopped open but they were motionless and glazed and this was a puzzling since her hands and legs seemed to be moving of their own accord.

His father said that he should go to Pilgrim Holiness and have someone there ring the bell. "Your mother wants someone to ring a bell over her," his father said. Anders rubbed the smoke and soot out of his eyes and his father gave him half a potato, the edges of it rotten, and told him to eat the potato and a heel of bread also so that he would have strength to reach the church on the its high hill. Anders went outside and was surprised at the warmth of the sun for it seemed that he had been in a place for a long time where it was very cold. Then, he went quickly across the fields and found the track made by wagon wheels in the sod and hurried along that way until he came to the church, bleached and white as bones on the hillside. There was an old man inside the church praying and Anders said that his mother was very ill and that she desired to hear the church bell sounding in the sky and so the man climbed a ladder until he was out of sight except for his boots and Anders looked up at this boots and saw that they were quite worn and the sole split so that he wondered if the locusts had gnawed on the shoe-leather just like they had gnawed on everything else, and, then, the bell boomed overhead, a brazen voice barking out its command across the land, the rolling thunder of the cannonade – maybe, this was a dream, perhaps, he had not gone to the church at all because it seemed that would have been a long and hard walk over confusing paths and Anders couldn’t recall any incidents along the way either coming or going – maybe, an angel had carried him or he had ridden an Indian pony or traveled by dog-travois, he just couldn’t remember. And, then, he was back at the cabin and his father was standing in dooryard next to the lilac bushes that his mother had so loved and that the grasshoppers had eaten to naked twigs and some Indians were parleying with him. Anders asked about his mother, but his father merely looked at him as if he had gone deaf and could not hear what he said.

"Did you hear the bell tolling?" Anders asked.

His father shook his head, but Anders didn’t know if his gesture meant "yes"or "no." Then, his father said that he was going to the gold and silver camps at Pactola Creek or Deadwood Gulch and that, when he had staked his claim and was on his feet again, he would return to this country and seek out the Indians so that father and son would be reunited. Then, he and the Indians parleyed some more and, one of the Indians gave his father, a sack of meal and a half-dozen apples, and his father handed the Indian his shotgun and let them go into the house so that they returned, blinking in the bright sunlight, with some blankets and the cast-iron cauldron hanging over the ashes in the fireplace. Anders, then, went inside to look for his mother but she wasn’t there. So he came outside and began to cry and one of the Indians took him by the hand and led him away from the house and, when he stood on the high slope overlooking the little valley, Anders could see his father on the hillside opposite to them, leading a mule that one of the Indians had given him and, although Anders waved at his father, the figure on the brown hillside pretended not to see him and, then, turning its back and tugging at the mule went away...

This was something Anders remembered as if it were happening at that very moment and he let out a little cry as he saw his father vanish in the distance and it made his head hurt so much to think about this that he went to the corral where the horses were standing and looked into their kindly eyes for a long time and, then, the dogs began to bark once more and the smoke leaked upward from the lodges and he could smell meat and corn roasting and the girls were going to the creek for water and, although fetching water was not man’s work, he joined them nonetheless so that he would not feel so lonely.





The valley was a sandy cove from which the waters had retreated. The earth was furrowed, scuffed, lacerated, torn to its integument of stones standing exposed in the fields. A mush of dead insects lined the ruts on the track that the soldiers rode through the ruined land. At the head of the valley, the soil spurted upward, black and grey swirling over a tiny orange tongue of flame. The puff of earth thrown into the air made a smooth round dome, then, it crumpled, collapsing back like a balloon that has been deflated or a tent knocked down in a storm. A moment later, the heavy boom of the explosive charge reached them and George’s pony started, rearing up for an instant, ears flattened against its skull and eyes flashing white around their dark edges. Lieutenant Williams and Private Anderson leaned forward on their mounts, bearing down to squeeze their horses between their thighs. There was another flash, a tongue of fire flickering, and the earth flung up in complete silence at this distance, then, the sullen report of the explosion echoing between the barren and stony hills rimming the valley.

Some rude structures were cut into the dirt bank ahead of them, where the valley ended in a palisade of naked, burnt-looking trees. On a slant terrace of exposed rose-colored granite, some ragged people were sitting. Voices sounded, singing, perhaps, an inarticulate sound that was more like the rumor of words, then, words themselves. The troopers saw an odd-looking harrow yoked to a scrawny, bewildered steer. Two other cows were hitched to a wagon that seemed to be in desperate disrepair, its wheels about to fall off into the furrows plowed in the little field that was spread out like a fan in front of the homestead.

George raised his hands in a greeting. A half-naked man was squatting over a fuse. He triggered another explosion and, now, they were close enough to the field that the blast and its roar were, more or less, simultaneous.

The ragged people perched on the tablet of rose-colored stone were children. A girl who seemed to be about ten was singing in a high-pitched voice, off-key but close enough to the tune that troopers recognized the melody. A smaller girl and little boy with a filthy face and hands were struggling to keep up with her, adding their voices to the song. The little boy saw the horseman first and he rose and pointed and, then, his older sister, pausing in the tune for a beat, waved her hand, as well in the direction of the riders. The half-naked man stood up and turned to see the three riders approaching – his face was vivid with strong emotion that made his lips twist this way and that and caused a tic to flutter in his left eye.

"Dynamite?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"Yes sir," the man said. "Left over from the mines at Deadwood Gulch."

"What are you blasting?" Private Anderson asked.

"Egg bed," the man said, squinting at them and, then, flexing his lips in a semblance of a smile.

His breast was bare and his shirt was shredded, hanging in ribbons against his bony torso. One of his legs was bare to the thigh, his pants split over his other knee and hanging down in rags. Bristly cockleburs were caught in the frayed end of the trouser leg danging in shreds over his ankle. Boots without stockings covered his feet and, when he turned around, the horsemen saw that his buttocks were mostly bare.

The man scratched at the earth underfoot and, then, lifted a handful of soil. Lieutenant Williams dismounted and looked at the dirt cupped in the man’s palm. The soil was speckled with pearl-white particles, sleek and glistening clutches of tiny oval eggs. Some of the eggs were entangled in translucent filaments of pale mucous, ruptured tubes with eggs clinging to them like clusters of pale and minute grapes.

"There are a hundred eggs in every tablespoon of soil," the man said. A tremor distorted his lips and made his nose twitch. "When they hatch, the ground will seethe with them. The soil will move like a sea that’s troubled by waves."

"What can you do?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"Dynamite the egg-beds," the man said. "I’m applying high-explosive, very systematically, eradicating the field and, then, what I miss –"

He gestured to the harrow, a plowshare-blade dipped in some kind of adhesive grease. Lieutenant Williams smelled the sulphurous stench of burnt gun-cotton and cordite from the explosions. The harrow had an odor that was hot and medicinal like burning tar.

"We plow them up onto the harrow and, then, sweep them back into the box," the man said.

Private Anderson had also dismounted and was inspecting the peculiarly shaped plowshare and the steel trough behind it, painted with thick gobbets of coal-tar. Eggs were embedded in the coal tar, and the trough glistened moon-white with them. He looked away from the wedge-shaped plow and saw the upturned furrows where the earth had been cut and, kneeling, Private Anderson, groped in the moist soil and smelled the fumes of rot and musk that it exhaled and his fingers came away from the dirt dripping with the egg capsules and their tiny cyclone-shaped mucous sacs. He stood and shuddered, wiping his hands on his trousers, and the earth underfoot seemed to writhe for a moment, seem unsteady so that he staggered a bit as he walked back toward the plow and the miserable-looking steer hitched to that ironmongery.

"Can you get enough of them?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"I don’t know," the man said.

George’s horse whinnied. The storm was approaching and they could see the darkness dragged across the land toward them.

The wind switched directions and came cold and hard from the skirts of black cloud.

"You must be freezing," Lieutenant Williams said to the man.

"I’m like your face in the winter," the man said. "You go out in the blizzard with your face uncovered. Well, now I’m all face." He grinned.

The children sitting on the ledge of pink rock shouted something.

Private Anderson saw that the steer yoked to the locust-harrow had mud caked on its flank, a thick smear of mud as if someone had plastered the side of the animal with wet clay. A few yards away, the two other steers stood exhausted, shoulders scabby with fly-bites and ribs showing through the filth clotting their hide, and Anderson saw that those animals also had a paste of wet clay obscuring their flanks, applied, it seemed, like a kind of paint.

"Ask him where he got the oxen," Private Anderson said to Lieutenant Williams. "They don’t seem quite broke to the yoke yet."

Lieutenant Williams nodded to Anderson. He looked at the man in his clownish rags.

"How can you get them all?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"With God’s help and enough dynamite, I can save my stake," the man said.

"But you’re starving," Lieutenant Williams said. "And the children are starving."

"I’m not gonna be driven from my land by a mob of grasshoppers," the man said. "I will stay here and fight them as long as I have any strength left in my body."

The oldest girl said: "Ask them for some biscuits or flour, pa."

Private Anderson bent over to inspect the smear of dirt on the steers hitched to the wagon. The animals looked at him impassively, too weak to take much notice of him.

George said: "The storm is here." Something white was carried on black wind pouring out of the bruised-colored cloud.

The children commenced to singing again:

The shanghai ran off and the cattle all died,

That morning the last piece of bacon was fried,

Poor Ike was discouraged and Betsy got mad,

The dog drooped his tail and looked wondrous sad.
Then, the children made wordless sounds, like roosters crowing, a strangled singing tight in their throats: it was a refrain in which words were gargled smooth as driftwood on the edge of the sea.

"It’s coming," George cried and he leaped from his horse and knelt beside the animal as if to make himself as small as possible.

The children screamed and spun in circles clutching one another and, then, they fell to the ground, crawling under the old wagon where they huddled together howling. Lieutenant Williams felt ice on his forehead. The air was full of spikes and needles. Anderson’s horse charged away from him and ran in circles, maddened by the clattering chaos in the air. He staggered toward the wagon where the steers were rearing and snorting. If the oxen ran wild, perhaps, they would overturn the wagon or drag it unsteadily forward so that its heavy, iron-rimmed wheels would wound the children. The steer leaned against the harrow and dragged it bouncing over the half-plowed field. The ragged man stood hatless and upright, defying the storm.

The field filled with white. The children’s screams were high-pitched, whistling and piping sounds like dying rabbits. Then, the hail stopped and the rain fell in a great gush from the sky.

"It’s just rain, just rain," the man cried. His forehead was slashed by the hail and a trickle of blood ran down his cheek until it was washed away by the downpour. The gullies above the fields roared with water.

Private Anderson bent forward to examine the flanks of the cows yoked to the wagon. Hailstones caught in the brim of his hat cascaded down before his eyes as he bent to look at the brand marks on the steers, exposed now by the jets of rain bathing the animals.

The children came out from under the wagon to dance in the rain splashing around them. The horses that had fled during the first blast of hail came cautiously back toward the plowed field. The white pellets underfoot were melting, dissolving into the soil already veined with pearly eggs of the locusts.

After a while, the rain stopped. A ray of sun zigzagged down between the frothy storm clouds. The children and their father sat on the pink slab of wet granite. The moisture on the stone glistened in the sunbeams and Lieutenant Williams saw that there were faint marks pecked into the rock, tiny figures with atlatl spears and horseshoe-shaped emblems, concentric circles with arrows chipped into the hard crystal.

The soldiers unloaded from the packs on their horses their remaining provisions and left them for the man and his family.

As they road out of the valley, George said coughed and said: "You see, it wasn’t my kin involved in rustling those cattle."

"Your right," Lieutenant Williams told him.

"George is always right," Private Anderson said.

The horses seemed to know the way back over the open land to the fort.

"The rain washed off the mud and you could see the government brand," Private Anderson said.

"It’s a big country to be looking for three strayed beef-cows," Lieutenant Williams said.

"A mighty big country," Private Anderson repeated.

"Pretty much like looking for a needle in a haystack," Lieutenant Williams said.

Infestation (Part II)




Major Goodweather remarked that foraging was warfare, just as efficacious in defeating the enemy as cavalry advancing under banners and cannonade or a skirmish-line of infantry attacking across an open meadow. This was something Major Goodweather had learned, so he said, during the Shenandoah campaign during the late war to preserve the union, declaring: "we scoured that valley from one end to the other until there was nothing remaining to provision man or beast." Quartermaster Biggens replied that he had heard about that campaign of which it had been proclaimed that a crow wishing to traverse that valley, made a howling wasteland by the Federal troops, would have needed to pack his own victuals since there was not a grain of corn or wheat anywhere remaining in those Blue Ridge Mountains. "So the Indians (explained Major Goodweather) who have seized our beef-cattle, three of them (as he recollected) have engaged in an act of war against us just as surely as if they had fired upon our troops sent out to gather firewood or burnt the barn of one of the settlers entrusted to this fort’s protection." "But did you not feel a bit like a wild Sioux Indian yourself," Quartermaster Biggens said, "falling upon barns and hamlets and growing fields and putting them to the torch in that way?" "We were proceeding under the strictest orders," Major Goodweather said, sucking a bit on his pipe. "Most assuredly, war is a cruel thing," Lieutenant Williams said helpfully. Dr. Marcus, the camp surgeon, made a clucking sound in his throat, suggesting assent.

"I was at Winchester Station, Kernsville, Cross Keys, Waynesville, Front Royal..." Major Goodweather said. "Pillaging and burning with General Custer and General Sheridan..." He spoke contemplatively and his small hot-tempered eyes softened with his voice.

"War is a cruel thing," Lieutenant Williams repeated.

There followed an uneasy hiatus in the conversation during which the gentlemen could hear the winter wind blowing against the building so that the window frames and joists overhead creaked. The ladies had retired to another room, beyond a corridor dark with cold and menacing shadows. A woman’s voice, accompanied by the pianoforte, sounded in that room. The singer cautiously navigated between notes either too high or too low for her, warbling with vibrato that some might have found tastelessly broad on the tones that came confidently to her.

"It’s a bad night, so cold and stormy," Lieutenant Williams said. "Brutal," Dr. Marcus replied, beaming a little with pride at his wife’s singing in the other room. Major Goodweather, deaf as a result of an artillery bombardment during the War, was indifferent to the music. "I am merely suggesting, my friends," he said, "that we can, perhaps, use this order, which is distasteful to me, as an occasion to pursue the hostiles who have been thieving our cattle."

Lieutenant Williams blinked several times and, then, turned his gaze to the fire burning merrily in the hearth. The fire was big and bright and the flames leaped in a jolly way that Lieutenant Williams found calming. One might comfortably fall asleep watching the flicker of a fire this robust and well-mannered.

"There will be a campaign this Spring, as soon as the ice goes out of the rivers," Major Goodweather said. "That is most assuredly the case. And I am told that General George Custer will lead the force dispatched against the hostiles. So it would seem to me that when we go forth to implement our own orders, we might also keep an eye out for bands of marauding Sioux and, perhaps, punish them for thefts that they have committed."

"It seems a shame to employ fighting men on a relief mission that might just as well be accomplished by church groups or a ladies’ aid auxiliary," Dr. Marcus said.

"I would submit that the entire enterprise is not only questionable, but illegal," Major Goodweather said. "It’s another instance of the corruption and graft afflicting this president’s administration. Shameless pandering to indolent men."

"Illegal?" Quartermaster Biggens asked.

"I am soldier not a warden of the poor," Major Goodweather said.

"An order is an order," Quartermaster Biggens said, "And we have our orders." Quartermaster Biggens lit a cigar and sucked on it. Major Goodweather raised the bottle of brandy and asked them if they would take another drop. Dr. Marcus and Quartermaster Biggens set their glasses on the table in front of the Major and he distributed rations of brandy, pouring out the bottle in three measures.

"And those orders shall be fulfilled. In the due course of time," Major Goodweather replied.

Lieutenant Williams tore himself away from watching the brightly dancing flames in the hearth. "Yes, it would hardly be prudent to set forth in this weather," he said.

"Brigadier General Custer will depart when the ice is melted in the rivers, early April, I presume," Major Goodweather said. "Campaigning is not possible with the ways all clogged with snow and blizzards howling down out of the north. We will coordinate our expedition with his."

"But in the interval?" Quartermaster Biggens asked.

"No man of decent industry will starve," Major Goodweather said. "Isn’t that true, Dr. Marcus?"

The doctor seemed embarrassed to be called upon: "I am sure that you are right, Major. But, of course, one worries about the women and the children. They certainly can not be charged with this misfortune."

"I think rumors of starvation in this country are very much exaggerated," Major Goodweather said. "A man with powder and ammunition should be able to provision his family by hunting. I am told that the deer and antelope are most plentiful even in the areas scoured by the locusts."

"Our settlers are farmers. Not all of them are proficient hunters," Lieutenant Williams said.

"But is there abundant game?"

Lieutenant Williams paused: "That would have to be determined. I’m not so convinced about that. And I will say that the poverty among those afflicted is very severe."

"General Ord has made it clear what we are to do," Quartermaster Biggens said. "We are to enter our storehouses and inventory our material. Then, we are charged to go forth and distribute surplus provisions to those made indigent by the locusts."

"And, thereby, reduce our capacity for campaigning in the field if we are called upon to support General Custer," Major Goodweather said.

"Omaha is making you into grocers," Dr. Marcus said.

"General Ord has already turned his troops in the Army of the Platte into purveyors of dry-goods," Major Goodweather said. "Last year, he had them abroad, distributing ‘old pattern’ uniforms."

"We are a division of the Army of the Platte," Quartermaster Biggens said.

"I needn’t be reminded of that," said Goodweather, "and I am well aware of the chain-of-command."

"Flour, bread and hard-tack, salt pork and bacon," Quartermaster Biggens said. "From our storehouses according to our means to those that are impoverished according to their needs."

"Criminal," Goodweather said. He opened another bottle of brandy, brandishing it like a club.

"But an order, nonetheless," the Quartermaster replied.

Dr. Marcus said: "I think I have had enough." He cupped his hand over his glass.

"No more for me," Quartermaster Biggens said.

"All the better for me," Major Goodweather said, pouring himself another full measure.

In the room beyond the dim corridor, the ladies tired of singing. Mrs. Williams closed the lid over the keys on the pianoforte and Dr. Marcus’ wife set aside her sheet music. Mrs. Goodweather stood up and paused in the doorway, cocking her head to listen to the men’s voice at the end of the hallway. "I hope that they don’t indulge too heavily," Mrs. Goodweather said with a sigh. She heard her husband speaking, a little too loudly and in a voice that she found slightly shrill and, therefore, disturbing. The Quartermaster’s wife looked at Mrs. Goodweather with a sympathy that the Major’s wife thought slightly insubordinate.

For a time, the women talked about their children and the rigors of raising them on this desolate prairie. Then, the doctor’s wife suggested that one of them read aloud to the others. The wind gusted against the house and made the glass panes shudder in their frames. Mrs. Goodweather always wanted them to read from Pilgrim’s Progress but she was overruled in favor of a new novel by George Meredith, Beauchamp’s Career.

"Is it very scandalous?" The Quartermaster’s wife asked.

"Very much so," laughed Mrs. Marcus as she opened the volume and began to read in a clear voice, affecting just the slightest of British accents.



The great hailstorm frightened Morgan’s beef-cattle and many of them went astray. In an arroyo remote from ranch house and buildings, one of the cowboys found Morgan’s barbed wire fence buried in rubble where a hillside had collapsed in the torrential rain. Judging by the hoofmarks imprinted in the wet clay, some of the herd stampeded through the ravine onto the open prairie. It was unclear how many cattle were missing. The animals remaining within the fenced property had scattered and had taken shelter in the deepest and most inaccessible pits and cavities in the broken country and remained huddled there, hidden and miserable, their flanks scarred by the thorn and yucca spears through which they had precipitously fled. It took Morgan’s ranchhands more than a week to round-up the beef-cows and, during that time, the Preacher had the bunkhouse, more or less, to himself. As the lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled and rain commingled with hail that was like bright white sparks, Morgan observed to his women that the Preacher’s prayer had, indeed, been efficacious because the black cloud brought wind and water but not locusts and, on that basis, he invited the man to stay with him at his ranch, at least until the awful weather cleared, and the lanes were dry enough for a wagon’s wheels. As he made this invitation, Morgan told the Preacher that he could sleep in the bunkhouse and asked the laundress to make a place for him there, remarking that he hoped the reverend pastor would not be offended by sharing these premises with his rough and ready cowboys, mostly uneducated and rude fellows. "No," the Preacher had replied, "I appreciate your generosity. Jesus made due with fishermen and shepherds and, surely, I can bunk with your vaqueros."

In the pursuit of the strays following the thunderstorm, everyone was very busy and, then, there was an encounter with a band of Sioux spiriting off a pair of Morgan’s cows, an incident in which rifle-shots were exchanged, although at a comfortably long-range, and this episode required Morgan with his foreman to ride up to the fort to petition Major Goodweather for increased vigilance and protection against the hostile savages. In that discussion, Major Goodweather told Morgan that he construed the Indians’ activities as a form of forage and that forage was an act of war, something that he had come to understand during his service with the Federal troops in the Great War to save the Union. During all of this time, the Preacher was, more or less, forgotten in Morgan’s bunkhouse, eating each noon and evening with the servants of the house and, forming a close, even, intimate association, with one of the laundresses, Irish Annie, the girl who had rushed forth to cling so tightly to him after his prayer that the heavens withhold their scourge of locusts from the rancher’s pastures.

By the time, the strays were all rounded-up and the beef-cows numbered and accounted-for (except for the pair snatched by the hostiles), the north winds were blowing continuously and the sky spitting sleet that turned to snow. Then, the country was mostly impassible, the tracks and lanes, such as they were, buried in wind-driven drifts of snow and the days alternating between bitter, deadly cold and warm thaws that flooded the roads traversing the badlands with axle-deep mud. During this time, Morgan, making a virtue of necessity, deputized the Preacher to conduct twice-daily Bible studies with his daughters and, sometimes, in the evening, the Pastor discussed theology with the rancher and, even, spent some hours attempting to teach the rancher’s wife the fundamentals of New Testament Greek. By this time, the Preacher was taking most of his evening meals with the rancher and his family, although he still breakfasted and ate his dinner with the other servants of the house.

Morgan’s bunkhouse consisted a half-dozen cell-shaped cubicles that opened onto a central room with field-stone fireplaces at both of its ends. The poor weather kept the cowboys inside most of the day and the men passed the time in the common room playing endless games of poker. At first, the cowboys invited the Preacher to play cards with them, but he demurred thinking that gambling might reduce his authority as a pastor and counselor to Morgan’s wife and daughters. Nonetheless, the Preacher sometimes circled the card table, looking on enviously, and commenting to himself how he would play this hand or that, and the cowboys, who also drank beer and whiskey while shuffling and dealing their cards, suspected that the reverend had more knowledge about the game than he had admitted. Certainly, he watched their play with a glittering eye and, after an hour or so, would vanish without excusing himself, slinking across the farm yard to the smoky shanties where the laundresses lived with their children.

Sometimes, poor people, ragged as beggars, with their ankles bloody and frost-bitten from trekking through the ice, came to the shacks where the laundresses lived. The Preacher saw them himself when he was visiting Irish Annie. The poor people asked for a little bread, some oat meal, perhaps, or a basket of potatoes or apples and the laundresses gave them the food as well as worn-out garments that the cowboys or the ranchers family no longer used. Winter and starvation had made the poor people half crazy and, although they spoke the same English as the Preacher, he always felt that poverty and inanition had altered their tongues so that they were, in fact, speaking an entirely different language, words that sounded familiar to the Preacher but that had completely different meanings in the discourse of the indigent. One of women who came to beg at the laundresses’ shanties brought with her a bright, blonde-haired boy. The boy eyed the tallow soap that the laundry girls used for their work with glistening, eager eyes. He was so hungry that the women were afraid that the boy would pocket the lumps of fatty soap and try to eat them somewhere in the barren country between the ranch and their devastated farmland. "I told my father," the boy said, "that everything we had went into the hopper." "The hopper?" Irish Annie asked. "The grasshopper," the boy said, laughing in a high, strained voice. He had a bad cough and the laundresses thought that he should stay overnight with them in their shacks, but the boy’s mother said that there were invalids at home and that she had to return and care for them and, so, they left before sunset, walking through the thigh-high drifts of snow toward the distant hills. "The cowboys will find them out there," Irish Annie told the Preacher, "frozen stiff as boards in all this frightful snow and ice."

"Oh no," the Preacher said, "the bodies will not surface until Spring."

"Someone should help those people," Irish Annie said.

The Preacher caressed her thigh and belly. "God will provide," he said. "God will provide."

"I hope to heaven that is true," Irish Annie said.

The Preacher could adduce a half-dozen well-attested proofs of divine providence, including the child that he had raised from the dead at the silver camp at Creede, but all of these examples involved mercies extended to himself and, perhaps, demonstrated nothing more than the he was one of God’s elect.

A couple weeks later, Irish Annie whispered to the Preacher that she thought that she was with child. The Preacher embraced her heartily and, then, went to the bunkhouse where the cowboys were playing one of their never-ending games of cards. He insinuated that one of the men was cheating and there was a brief, vicious fistfight between the players that greatly pleased the Preacher because it showed him that most people are worse than brutish animals. Then, the Preacher went into his cell and kneeled next to his cot, praying with all his might. Three days later, Irish Annie announced to the Preacher that she had miscarried.





Major Goodweather’s weakness for strong drink was well-known and, so, Dr. Marcus suggested that the gentlemen join the ladies where the temptation to carouse would be decidedly less. The Major ignored this proposal and declared that he would gladly give up his command at the fort to serve as an adjutant, or, even, an enlisted man in General Custer’s summer campaign against the Sioux.

"I see nothing but ignominy here," he cried and, it seemed for a moment, that his small eyes, half-closed under the influence of liquor, produced a half-dozen tears that wet his cheek.

"Come, come now, Major," Dr. Marcus said. "The duty of a soldier, and, I suppose, his glory is in executing orders."

"That’s so," Major Goodweather affirmed.

Quartermaster Biggens asked: "If you were ordered to lead troops in a dawn assault on an Indian village so to destroy their lodges and shoot their horses and carry out the slaughter of all men and boys present in that encampment, would you carry out that directive?"

"Undoubtedly," Major Goodweather said.

"Because it is a just and good order you deem strategically sound or because it is an order?" Quartermaster Biggens continued.

"Because it is an order."

"Then, why is it abhorrent to you to act as ordered in supplying salt pork and blankets and flour to your fellow white men?"

Major Goodweather paused. "I distinguish between the two orders on the basis of their accord with human nature. I am soldier and my business is war and war requires that we fight and kill. War is the mother of all of manly virtues and the natural state of the world."

"Some might disagree with you on that point, sir," Quartermaster Biggens said.

"There have always been wars," Dr. Marcus said mildly. He looked to Lieutenant Williams.

Lieutenant Williams said: "A soldier is bound to execute only those orders that have a lawful intent and purpose."

"Nonsense," Major Goodweather said. "An order is an order."

"So why the hesitancy to perform the order to offer charity to your fellow white men?" Quartermaster Biggens asked.

"Because the demand that I distribute my supplies to civilians weakens my capacity to fight and, further – and this is most important – is destructive to the very men that it would aid. It’s contrary to human nature."

"I don’t see how," Quartermaster Biggens said.

"Have you read your Emerson, sir – Self-reliance?" Major Goodweather said. "The struggle for existence requires fortitude. If, now, we distribute charity to these farmers, don’t we strip them of their manhood? And don’t we insure that the next crisis that ensues will result in further petitions for charity and further reliance on the beneficence of others?"

"But these are special circumstances," Lieutenant Williams said. "Three years of grasshopper infestation. The crawling larva in the Spring and, then, the great swarms of them in Summer and Fall."

"I unwilling to cede such influence to a mere insect," Major Goodweather said.

"An insect that comes in the billions, in swarms that are a mile high advancing across a front that is the width of a county?" Quartermaster Biggens said.

"I haven’t seen that," Major Goodweather replied. "Indeed, I think the accounts of this plague are much exaggerated."

"The fort’s been spared," Lieutenant Williams said.

"Poverty is a direct consequence of improvidence and indolence and..." Major Goodweather paused.

"...and ‘intemperance’ you were about to say?" interposed Quartermaster Biggens.

"I do so much fancy a drop of strong spirits, that much I’ll concede," the Major said smiling.

"If it is known that the army is distributing its materials to the poor," Dr. Marcus asked, "won’t we attract all manner of riff-raff to the fort? And, then, won’t there be bitter rivalry among the beggars for our largesse?"

"Charity encourages habitual beggary, it has ever been thus..." Major Goodweather said. "Beggary and confirmed mendicancy increases the tribe of the idle and vicious."

"But there are people in this country who are boiling grass and weeds for their soup," Quartermaster Biggens said. "If their poverty were the result of an invading foe, you would supply relief without hesitating."

"Upon the order of a proper authority," Major Goodweather said.

"In this case, the invading foe are the locusts," Lieutenant Williams said.

"If anybody chooses to lie down and be eaten up by the grasshoppers, I don’t much care if he is devoured body, boots, and breeches," Major Goodweather said. "But if he fights and keeps on fighting, I am convinced that the cases in which he will require the charity of others will be rare, very rare indeed."

Dr. Marcus exhaled a cloud of pipe-smoke: "In the majority of cases, our pioneers are robust fellows. I have no doubt that, in the majority of cases, they will pull through just fine. And those who don’t –"

"It’s providence, my dear fellows, it’s the decree of God. If you are to be eaten up by locusts, that is the ordinance of the almighty and who are we to interfere with such ordinances," Major Goodweather said.

"At minimum, I suppose, the fellows who we succor should agree to pay us back for the loan of food and blankets and seed," Dr. Marcus said.

"That’s what the Sutler says," Lieutenant Williams replied. "Mr. Berwyn told me that the other

day. He advised that General Ord’s orders to the Army of the Platte insofar as they mandate charity to private individuals is unconstitutional. Goods may be provided to the destitute but only upon the execution of promissory notes and other instruments for repayment with interest."

"Interest?" Major Goodweather said. "Are we all Jews here?"

"Is Mr. Berwyn of that persuasion?" Lieutenant Williams asked.

"I spoke figuratively," Major Goodweather replied. "Although Mr. Berwyn would insist on usury."

"The valiant pioneers will depart the land devastated by the locusts," Dr. Marcus said. "They will go to earn their way in the pineries of Minnesota or in the gold fields of the Black Hills. I believe that we will find only the weakest and most feckless remaining on their farms when your columns go forth to render aid."

"Of that I am sure," Major Goodweather said.

A candle borne by one of the women came down the darkened corridor. In the shadows, the woman’s face shone like an angel, eyes and hair illumined by the flame that she carried.

"We’re tired of reading," the woman said. "The ladies ask that you join us."

"So the nymphs will receive us," Major Goodweather said. "Arethusa and her sisters await."

Major Goodweather stood up unsteadily. He swayed to and fro, his feet planted far apart to keep him upright.

"We should make a punch, a rum punch, to share with the ladies," Major Goodweather proclaimed.

"That’s not necessary my good fellow," Dr. Marcus said.

"It’s essential, essential," Dr. Goodweather said, mispronouncing the word a little.

"My dear friend..." Dr. Marcus began.

"No, it’s essential, really essential – a good rum punch..."

"Not at all," Quartermaster Biggens said.

Dr. Marcus took Major Goodweather’s arm and steadied him. The candle withdrew a few feet, loitering in the dark hall and the wind outside snarled against the windows and flung sleet at the glass panes. Major Goodweather said something in Latin.

The men stood and Dr. Marcus half-bowed to the lady holding the candle and, then, led by Major Goodweather they began their march down the dark corridor, a campaign through the dark accompanied by the wail of the wind outside. After eight or nine steps, Major Goodweather lost his footing and slid sideways so that he fell onto the floor, cracking his head hard against the wainscoting.

Major Goodweather’s wife hurried to her husband’s side. Her skirts rustled against the floor and the dry air conducted a spark upward from the place where she touched him. The spark flashed so briefly that it was impossible to tell whether it was white or orange or violet.

"My husband has been a bit indisposed this week," Mrs. Goodweather said.

"Idleness is the curse of the true soldier," Dr. Marcus said softly and his wife nodded her head in agreement.


Major Goodweather reckoned that his baggage train should consist of no fewer than four heavily laden freight wagons of Conestoga manufacture together with a touring buckboard for the provision of ammunition and rations to the relief column. Ten infantryman were to accompany the wagons to protect against raiding Indians and starving pioneers who might be inclined toward theft or riot. Lieutenant Williams was to lead a six cavalry troopers. The mounted men, with a Ponca scout, were to reconnoiter the country in advance of the relief column in the hope of encountering and, perhaps, suppressing hostile Sioux rumored to have kidnaped a child and known to have rustled several beef-cows from pastures near the Fort. Because he opposed the order from Omaha to provide welfare to the locust plague victims, Major Goodweather intended to accompany the column for the purpose of writing from personal observation a report to his superiors that he expected to be both scathing and eloquent. Major Goodweather had been an accomplished horseman when he was younger and had spent days in the saddle during the War between the States but he had grown fat with idleness at the Fort and gouty, an affliction that particularly troubled the commander when he was in his cups.

On the morning of the expedition, well before dawn, the Conestogas were drawn up in a file on the parade grounds, loaded by soldiers who used the touring buckboard and two small wagons usually deployed for gathering wood to convey provisions to the big freight wagons. On inspection, the running gear of one of the Conestogas was found to be fractured, the broken weld rendering the wagon impossible to turn in any reasonable radius. Major Goodweather ordered that one of the freight wagons owned by Sutler Berwyn be requisitioned for the mission. Berwyn protested and set an impossibly high rental price on his rig. Several teamsters were dispatched to retrieve Berwyn’s wagon from the Sutler’s compound. Sutler Berwyn protested and said that the wagon was being taken to impoverish him and drive him out of business so that the government would have the monopoly on sales to the friendly Indians and local pioneers who traded at the Sutler’s store. Not quite at gunpoint, the wagon was commandeered by the armed men from the fort, driven to the parade ground and duly loaded with blankets, boots, bedding and canvas tents, as well as several barrels of salt-pork.

After the sun rose, George looked at the sky and, then, stamping his feet on the ground because it was very cold, said that the day would be dry and windy and that the nights would be cold enough to freeze the water in the marshes and lagoons by the river. At least in the morning, when the earth was still frozen, the relief column should make good progress overland on its mission of mercy. At Major Goodweather’s order, the cavalry rode forth, very quickly crossing the prairies and breaks near the fort to attain sentry positions on the buttes at the horizon. The wagons would attain those heights midday so that the cavalry might, then, range forth again as the column moved north and west toward the river. The heavy freight wagons lumbered forward very slowly with Major Goodweather slouched on a horse at their head and, when the marching men turned to look over their shoulder, it seemed that they had made almost no progress away from the buildings of the fort behind them. A number of ragamuffins and scarecrows were standing idly by the Sutler’s compound, warming themselves at the embers of fires lit the night before. (Mr. Berwyn had given them permission to rake through his potato field harvested the previous year in the hope that they might find some vegetables still lingering intact in the frozen ground.) When the ragged men learned that the wagon train was driving north and west to provide relief to the starving pioneers, a sort of cheer was raised so that the dogs at the encampment barked and the Indian children came from their huts and lean-tos to race for a quarter mile along side the Conestogas.

At three homesteads, the wagons halted. At each place, Major Goodweather asked the settler to attest that he was "absolutely destitute" and had neither livestock nor seed to plant. The first two settlers were willing to stipulate as to their poverty and signed affidavits to that effect. At the third farm, the homesteader said that he was destitute and would so attest under penalty of perjury. Major Goodweather noted that the man had a dilapidated-looking ox standing in his pasture, a beast that seemed not to have eaten for some time and that seemed unsteady on its legs. "But, sir, you have livestock," Major Goodweather protested. "How am I to travel or put in my crop this Spring if I am not allowed to retain my ox?" the farmer asked. Major Goodweather shook his head and said that relief was granted on the condition of absolute impecuniousness and not on any other grounds. "So am I to surrender my animal to you?" the farmer asked. The man’s haggard face was red but white around his nostrils. "Not at all," Major Goodweather said. "I am merely without authority to render any aid to you." Goodweather climbed back on his horse a bit clumsily. His gout afflicted him and he was limping. The column proceeded away from the farmstead. The farmer’s wife emerged from their sod dug-out and sobbing raised her infant so that Major Goodweather could see the child swaddled in a rags. Two troopers went to the final wagon in the baggage train and, loading their arms with as much bacon and hardtack as they could carry, brought the food to the woman and spread it out at her feet. The baby howled and Major Goodweather, whose foot was throbbing, watched out of the corner of his eye but pretended not to see what the men had done.

At noon, having made good progress for wagons so heavily laden, the baggage train reached the pine-clad heights where the horsemen were waiting for them. Major Goodweather asked if the men had seen any trace of hostile Sioux. Lieutenant Williams said that they had not encountered anyone and that much of the territory seemed to have been abandoned. He remarked that there was a company of pioneers foraging on a table-land about three miles to the north, pointing to a ridge crowned with stony palisades harboring snow in their fissures. "They seem quite self-sufficient," Lieutenant Williams said.

Major Goodweather was interested in collecting evidence that most of the farmers, at least of the better sort, had not been so much inconvenienced by the grasshoppers, and, so, after their noon repast, he led the train in the direction of the mesa where the settlers were said to be located. Major Goodweather told the cavalryman to range widely across the country as far north as the breaks at the river, but to rejoin the caravan at the Pilgrim Holiness church where several country lanes intersected.

In the valley at the foot of the pine-sprinkled ridge, the relief column came upon a settlement with several buildings all of them scarred and wrinkled and half-burnt away by fire. On the side of a granary, someone had written in chalk-white words GRASSHOPPERED.

By mid-afternoon, it was warm and the sun was high in the sky, burning brightly over the barren land. On a small knoll, the column saw three wooden crosses with the word STARVED written on each of them. The snow in the pockets between the brittle-looking cliffs overhead melted and the ravines were slick with mud so that it took the big wagons a long time to attain the heights.

The top of the mountain was a grassy expanse encompassing sixty or more hectares and the flat prairie was strewn with the white and brown bones of bison. A man with two women in tattered shawls stood near a small cart to which four hungry-looking dogs were tethered. The man had a shovel in his hands and was loading the buffalo bones into the cart. The women sorted through the bones, now and then, finding something that must have been a prize because that specimen was set aside in a special burlap sack. The dogs rooted through the bones under their paws and, where calves had been shot on the day of the great buffalo massacre, the dead animals had not been skinned so that half-mummified and leathery carcasses rested here and there among the skeletons.

Major Goodweather’s wagons crushed the bones under their wheel rims and went forward slowly, a crackling sound of femur and rib breaking that sometimes made a loud report like a rifle-shot. The man waved at the relief column and, then, came toward Major Goodweather.

"We have come to render aid to anyone who is in desperate and impecunious straits," Major Goodweather said.

"I won’t deny that it’s been lean," the man said. His eyes were grey and immobile and, when he spoke, his jaw didn’t move. The words came from a hollow place in his rib cage twisted through lips like thin, pale laundry mangles. "It’s a hungry spring, nothing ripe yet except these bones."

Major Goodweather noticed that the women brushed back their hair and, even, cast coquettish sidelong looks at his soldiers. Although they were wearing heavy, malformed boots, foot-ware that looked as if it had been cast out of lead, their ankles and calves were bare to the knee.

"The railroad buys bones, a dollar a ton with a premium for horns," the man said.

"These bones been picked over," one of the women said. "You don’t find many horns."

"Sometimes, but not often," the other woman said. They looked like they were sisters.

"Do you have children at home?" Major Goodweather said. "We can grant you some assistance for the sake of your children."

"Not any more," the man said.

"Got no home," one of the women said. "We’re ‘hoppered’ out of hearth and home."

Major Goodweather looked at his plump fit soldiers and the fat oxen drawing his heavy wagons.

"We don’t think it fitting to ask for charity," the man said. "God will provide."

"God will provide," both women said echoing him.

A gunshot cracked nearby, loud and piercing so that Major Goodweather almost fell from his mount. He raised a fist in the air enraged. The dogs tethered to the bone-cart cowered and some of them whimpered.

"I didn’t give any order to –"

One of the soldiers stood up from where he had crouched to rest his rifle barrel across the back gate of the wagon. He grinned uncertainly at Major Goodweather, eyes blinking in the faint bluish haze of gunsmoke around his shoulders and head.

"I shot one of them grey fellers," the soldier said, pointing across the field of bones to a furry humped mass sprawled on the ground. "I’m sorry, sir, but I thought –"

"Wolf," another soldier said. "Nosing around to steal these bones from these folk."

The two women looked up at Major Goodweather with their red eyes and, then, set out toward the fallen wolf. Major Goodweather saw that they limped slightly as if their feet were injured and their hips not entirely trustworthy, a slow, swiveling gait that seemed somehow indirect and crooked.

"Are you sure you don’t need assistance?" Major Goodweather asked again. "We are prepared to issue some rations, provisions."

"We have no money," the man said. "And we’re not accustomed to buying goods on credit."

"This is charity," Major Goodweather said. "We don’t expect payment."

"It’s a hungry moon," the man said. "You know, the Indians call this month the "hungry moon", before the grass is green and when the game is gaunt, the rabbits famished too, earth too cold to dig up roots, no nuts or seeds on the trees."

"That’s why we’ve come to render assistance," Major Goodweather said.

"God will provide," the man said. "Anyone who accepts charity blasphemes against his heavenly father – God will provide."

He pointed to the dead wolf. The two women were squatting next to the carcass. Then, he began to cough. The cough racked him and, after a minute or two, he sat down in the bones.

Major Goodweather did not descend from his mount. The gout in his foot hurt him and he didn’t want to put weight on his swollen toes and ankle.

"No weapon is to be fired without my order," Major Goodweather shouted to his men. Then, he signaled that the column should continue its march.

A half mile from the hilltop covered with bones, one of the men asked another soldier if there was a way to butcher and eat a wolf.

"Oh, yes," the other soldier said. "The old mountain men did it all the time. It’s no different from eating dog. The Indians eat their dogs when they can’t find game."

"Dog?" the soldier asked.

"It’s hard to imagine," the other infantryman said.

One of the men set a little cairn of salt pork and boxes of biscuits on a knoll. The man tied a red bandana to pile of provisions so that the bone-collectors would see it. Far away, on a pyramidal mound of earth, three wolves sat overlooking the bone-strewn mesa. One of the troopers, Private Glasgow, raised his rifle and sighted it on the wolves.

The oxen drawing the wagons smelled the wolves and seemed skittish, pulling toward the side opposite the animals.

"Better not shoot," Private Thompson told Private Glasgow.

"They are mourning their brother," Private Glasgow said, shouldering the weapon.



Mr. Morgan debated with the Preacher whether the locusts would come again. The Preacher said that afflictions like the locust swarm were special manifestations of providence and akin to the year of jubilee – a sabbatical plague arising at intervals with a refractory period during which all would be well. "If the plague were continuous and unremitting, it would lack authority as a decree from the All Mighty," the Preachers said. "But we have had the grasshoppers in swarms for two years now and I see no reason why they would not return once the weather is temperate this year," Mr. Morgan said. The Preacher said that there had been very little snow this winter and that the temperatures had been cold and he supposed that the frost had destroyed the eggs in the soil where the grasshoppers had deposited them. "Surely, the cold will have spoiled the egg beds," the Preacher said. "I am not so certain on that point," Mr. Morgan answered.

Mr. Morgan had collected a variety of recipes for roast and fried locusts and said that if they came again this Spring, he would make a curry of them. "They are perfectly edible," Mr. Morgan said. "But to avoid unpleasantness, you must remove the wings and legs – those members will stick in your craw." "Disgusting," the Preacher replied. "Oh not at all," Mr. Morgan said. "I have tried them cooked with garlic and onions, salted or fried with bacon – the mature insects have a most delightful nutty flavor. You will concede that John the Baptist subsisted quite comfortably on them, together with wild honey." "So it is recorded," the Preacher replied.

A baby cried in another room. "It’s nice to have a baby in the house again," Mr. Morgan said. "My children have been grown for many years." The Preacher knew that the rancher’s sons had studied engineering in New England and, now, worked in industry in Pittsburgh and Chicago. One of the laundresses who had just given birth to her own child went into the nursery to attend to the baby. "Poor little Alpheus," Mr. Morgan said.

It had been a propitious thing to have the Preacher in the household when the infant was delivered to them in the sleet and storm. At first, the baby seemed scrawny, ill-tempered, tormented by the colic, and, for several weeks, the child was despaired of and Morgan, who kept his distance at that time, recalling his own grief at the illness of his children when they were little, thought that the baby had been brought to his ranch only to die there, an unhappy and unlucky thing and, possibly, the sort of misfortune that might draw locusts out of the sky. Mr. Morgan was convinced that the locusts were the materialization of certain forms of misery and that grief and unhappiness summoned them and, so, he did not even look at the foundling child, didn’t hold the baby or dandle it on his knee, for fear of bringing calamity upon the ranch. Morgan decreed that the Preacher baptize the child but, then, prepared himself for the infant’s funeral, obsequies that he intended to avoid. But, after a few weeks, the foundling rallied, fattening on the milk of the laundress, and Morgan, with his wife, were so bold as to, even,

name the infant. Morgan knew a bit of Latin and had read Virgil, although mostly in Dryden’s translation, and, so, he named the child "Alpheus."

The laundress acting as wet nurse to the infant told the other women that the Preacher’s prayers and baptism had saved a baby that was otherwise marked for death. The laundress who had miscarried her child said that there was sorcery, for both good and ill, associated with the man and that he had certain powers, that much was irrefutable. Ponca women with sick women sometimes came to Morgan’s ranch and asked that the Preacher bless those children and he prayed over them and, even, encouraged the mothers to become Christians. The Preacher said that, when the snow was gone and the grass reestablished on the hills, he would go forth and resurrect the Pilgrim Holiness Church – he told Morgan that he would build the church anew from its ruins with the help of the rancher and his cow-hands and found a congregation in the wilderness so that, when the pioneers returned to the land that they had deserted, there would be a consecrated place for their baptisms and weddings and burials.

"I don’t think the settlers will return," Morgan said. "The country is too harsh for them and the rain too unpredictable." The laundress brought the infant, freshly changed and clean smelling, into the room where the men were sitting and Morgan held the baby on his lap. The baby looked at Morgan’s beard with interest and, then, fell asleep. "You mean," the Preacher said, "that you own so much land in this territory that there will be no farmsteads for the pioneers to acquire."

"It’s true that I’ve acquired a great amount of land due to the depredations of the locusts," Morgan said. "But I’ve always thought of myself as helping the destitute by purchasing their ruined farms."

"Indeed, that is true enough," the Preacher said. "But you now own a very vast preserve here."

"It’s a patchwork," Morgan said. "Not all of the tracts are contiguous. And I would consider relinquishing the more remote parcels, I think, if I could trade or exchange property to connect my lands adjacent to this property."

"The pioneers will return," the Preacher said.

"It will have to be new men with new families," Morgan replied. "The men who have gone to the gold fields and the silver mines are ruined for agriculture. The lure of the ore destroys the husbandry in them. Consider this child – do you think we will see his father again?"

"It’s unlikely," the Preacher said.

In his sleep, the baby winced slightly as if he knew that the men were speaking about him.

The day before the child was brought to the ranch, the sun shone and there was a general thaw so that the creeks rose and, where the land was eroded, the meltwater ran in innumerable muddy rivulets down into the pockets and craters in the land. But in that season, warmth only presaged the advance of cold weather, icy winds from the north, and the dark clouds scudding over the badlands brought freezing rain first, then, sleet that fell slantwise out of the skies, and, then, after dark, blizzard winds and snow. In the midst of that chaos in the elements, one of Morgan’s cowhands, riding the fence-line to retrieve livestock baffled by the storm and wandering far from their accustomed pastures, came upon a farmer huddled under a buckboard wagon with its wheels frozen hub-deep in the mud. A ox rested on its side at the head of the wagon, just skin and bones frozen into an armature of icy sleet. With his body, the farmer was sheltering a baby, probably two months old, but appearing to be much younger, a pink and scrawny thing with a cry that was like cloth being ripped.

The ranch-hand helped the farmer onto the back of his horse and they made there way back to the house. The farmer said that he had been ‘hoppered,’ successive swarms of the locusts, both the crawling nymphs and the flying insects and, that, just as he was about depart the land, his rations depleted to a barrel of pickled sauerkraut and a few dozen moldering potatoes, his wife, being pregnant, had been seized with labor pains and rendered unable to travel. The woman gave birth to the child, but it was a difficult travail for her, accomplished alone in the man’s remote sod-house and, afterward, his wife’s mind seemed disturbed and she spoke of strangling the child nursing at her breast and worried that she would act on thoughts that were troubling her. The farmer said that he did not think that his wife would injure the child but that she became increasingly distraught and angry, demanding that the farmer load his gun and bring her meat to eat – "You brought us to this place," the woman said, "and you must provide for us." The farmer was afraid to leave his wife alone with the child and stood for hours at the threshold of the sod bunker carved into the hillside, his gun at his side in the hope that some animal suitable for hunting would wander near enough so that he could shoot it. In fine weather, deer came down from the hills and had to be driven away from their corn and squash patch, but the land had been swept clean by the crawling and flying locusts and the game had fled from this part of the county. At last, his wife said that she was so hungry that she would go herself into the hills and see if she could find some roots or seeds to devour, maintaining that on a distant hillside there were orange and red flowers that grew from bulbs buried in the sandy soil and that those tubers could, perhaps, be boiled and eaten. And, so, his wife left the baby lying on the floor and went outside and, before he could stop her, she ran very swiftly across the dooryard and, then, into the broken sticks and brambles where the locusts had destroyed the brush along the stream near their home. The farmer was concerned that the woman was running, lunging forward, when she had so recently given birth and had been so badly starved as well, and he shouted to her to return and that he would kill one of the two oxen remaining to draw his buckboard wagon so that they would have meat. But she didn’t respond and so the farmer gave chase, following up the stream bed into the close embrace of the hills.

Then, as the farmer told Morgan at the ranch-house, the locusts came again and fell from the sky like flakes of snow. The insects made a vortex around them and the farmer lost his way in the clouds of flying locusts. When the swarm lifted from the earth and departed, the farmer found himself in an unfamiliar country, staggering along the edge of creek that ran brightly over agate-like stones of many colors. He saw his wife’s footprints, small and distinct, in the soft sand along the edge of the water that rippled down from a cave opening into the side of a rocky hill. The farmer followed his wife’s footprints to the mouth of the cave where there were slabs of reddish sandstone like quarters of beef resting against the walls of the grotto. Beneath the rock overhang, a round eye-shaped pool brimmed over its edges so that cold water cascaded down the terraces of sandstone to form the creek in its agate and jasper stream bed. The farmer knelt to cup water in his hands and carry it to his lips. The stream slipping down the sandstone ledges seemed to whisper to him in his wife’s voice. This creek, the farmer told Morgan, did not exist before the locusts had come and, somehow, their devouring jaws had cut through the foliage and the grass to expose the water rolling down from the rock. The spring seemed fresh and newborn and his wife’s foot prints in the sand and soft reddish soil led directly to the edge of the water and, then, ended. The farmer said that he thought that his wife had fled the locusts, creatures that disgusted her, and that, in order to avoid their attack, she had been transformed, metamorphosed into the spring, this source of water that had not existed in this place before. And the more that he thought about his wife’s metamorphosis, the more he imagined that she had become the freshwater rolling sweetly down from the cave and the more he was convinced he could hear her singing, as she had during happier days, where the water babbled over the bright, many-colored stones. He wanted to linger by the spring in the hills forever but knew that the baby was alone at home and, probably, dying, and so he felt he had to return to that child and, at least, hold the baby in his arms before it passed away.

On his way back to the farm, following the stream that his wife had become, a watery guide that led him home, the farmer found a female goat wandering in the wilderness. Then, he was confused because he thought that, perhaps, he was mistaken about the creek and that his wife had been changed into a goat. But he led the goat back to the sod house and found that he could express milk from the animal’s dangling, triangular udders and, so, the baby did not die. Then, the weather changed and ice and snow clogged the trails. In the thaw, the farmer thought that he could, perhaps, escape to Morgan’s ranch, but his ox was greatly weakened by starvation, and, ultimately, unable to pull their wagon through the blizzard. The farmer expected to perish under the buckboard and had said his last prayers when the cowhand came upon them stranded in the mud.

When the farmer had been fed and, after he had slept for several days in a room warmed by a fire burning merrily in the hearth, he told Morgan that he was willing to sell him his homestead in exchange for enough money to buy a mule and some provisions for an expedition to the gold fields at Deadwood Gulch or Rapid Creek. At that time, the baby was expected to die and so Morgan said that he would care for the child until his father returned from the Black Hills with his fortune. The farmer told Morgan his name so that a quit-claim deed could be properly drawn and executed. When Morgan asked the man about the child’s first name thinking about a gravestone for the infant, the farmer said that his wife had been too sick and weak to name the baby boy and that he had not settled upon a name himself because he thought the child was sickly and would soon be in Heaven. "Well, then, I will name your boy," Morgan told the farmer.

Morgan said that the spring in the hills was like Arethusa, a fountain of freshwater rising on the very edge of the salt sea in Syracuse. Alpheus was a river in Greece much praised by shepherds and the naiads that they pursued and, as legend maintained, the course of the stream buried its head and hair of running waters in the earth on the edge of the Greek sea and, then, flowed under the ocean to emerge once more on the island of Sicily in the harbor of Syracuse. So Arethusa and Alpheus were related, although in a hidden way. The farmer had drawn a map to show Morgan where Arethusa’s fountain arose in the badland hills, the source of a stream with waters of abiding and pure sweetness. When the weather cleared, and it was Spring, Morgan said that he would find that place and, then, acquire it for his ranch. The Preacher commended this idea and the child slept peacefully on the rancher’s lap.





The relief column returned to the Fort. George told Major Goodweather that the Sioux raiding party, with a white child hostage, had broken its winter camp and was moving again. George said that the Indians were not attacking the pioneer encampments or farmsteads because the locusts had seized everything from the settlers and there was no point in robbing beggars. Major Goodweather drafted a report critical of his orders and the mission to supply food and blankets and seed to the impoverished farmers. He put the report in his desk drawer, because he thought it might be construed as intemperate, and, then, re-read his writing a few days later. The report was honest, Major Goodweather noted, and laconic in a soldierly manner, but he detected a troubling incongruity in his account of the expedition. Although he was critical of the objectives of the relief mission, it seemed to him that his narrative account of the expedition thoroughly supported the orders that he condemned as distasteful and "questionable from a military perspective." This mismatch between Major Goodweather’s opinions and the circumstances that he had encountered during his relief expedition suggested that either he had misrepresented the facts or his views of the mission were mistaken. Principles, it seemed, yielded to specific instances of poverty: facts were different from ideas and, often, thwarted them although that did not necessarily make the ideas wrong. It seemed to him that he could rewrite the report in such a way as to eliminate this incongruity, but this would be difficult and time-consuming and, in any event, a supply train of provisions had just reached the fort, the big wagons driven by teamsters hired at the rail-head, and, at the same time, new orders from Omaha had arrived requiring that Major Goodweather use those supplies to mount another charitable expedition. So the Major put the report that he had prepared aside and, once again, told his men that they were going to venture north toward the river and the badlands, ostensibly to provide welfare to the farmers ruined by the locust infestation, but, in fact, with the objective of employing their Ponca scouts to track the hostile raiding party so that the cavalry could pursue those Indians, rescue the white hostage, and punish those renegades.

The snow had melted in the last hideaways in the rough terrain and the streams ran swift and clear in their green gutters meandering through the land, all the brush budding green with tender young leaves. Hungry deer and antelope appeared on hillsides grazing on the bright grass. The mornings were cold and crisp, but by afternoon it was warm and the wilderness seemed to close its eyes and luxuriate in the sun overhead, somehow self-contained, dreaming of its own abundance, the haze of green leaf in the folds and seams of the land shielding from view a million busy little factories where new life in fur and feather and seed and flower was being built. The blue of the sky was so intense and unclouded that an alert eye could see the moon and stars shimmering in the transparent and glassy depths of the heavens.

Major Goodweather’s column made rapid progress to Morgan’s ranch where trenches full of stagnant camphor and kerosene encircled the ranchhouse and the barns and the neatly made outbuildings. The Major was invited to dine with Morgan and, after they had eaten, the men retired to the veranda above the home’s front door to enjoy the temperate evening. Major Goodweather praised Morgan’s industry in combating the pests. "I don’t know if I have been successful on my own account or simply lucky," Morgan said. "Fortune favors the industrious," Major Goodweather said, looking out over the landscape of flower beds and lawn and the trim stables and bunkhouse.

Morgan said that he benefitted from the presence of a Preacher and that the man had said several prayers to prevent the locusts from descending upon his ranch and, further, had breathed life into an infant recently rescued from the wilderness and, otherwise, everyone concurred, doomed to die. Major Goodweather said that he wanted to meet this interesting fellow. "He has left only a day or two ago," Morgan said. "Departed to rebuild a church and congregation at Pilgrim Holiness. He is certain that the pioneers will return and flourish and that the plague of locusts has now ended."

"There are rhythms in nature," Major Goodweather said, blowing a cloud of bluish cigar smoke around his head, " and the strange perpetuation of these pestilential swarms seemed to violate nature’s rhythms."

"We must continue to pray that the do not descend upon us again, this third year," Morgan said.

The next day, the relief column moved across land, now flowering, that the locusts had devoured. People came to greet them, emerging as if from caves dug into the earth, arising from the ground itself, it seemed, haggard and ragged, their mouths red from bleeding gums, with glaring eyes like lanterns. There were many of these people, more than Major Goodweather expected, and they were all in dire need and weak with starvation. These people were the remnants of homesteaders who had come to populate the imaginary villages and cities platted by the railroad companies. They staggered about like corpses reanimated by galvanic energy, showing yellow jaundiced eyes and faces peppered with sores and scabs, but, when the soldiers approached, the emaciated people grinned, opening their mouths to show the hollow darkness behind their bleeding and loose teeth.

Troops set up tents from which blankets and foodstuffs could be distributed and the starving farmers squatted near the encampment, bony knees rising above the men’s brittle-looking skulls, legs crooked like those of the grasshoppers that had reduced them to this state. The farmers whispered to one another and some of them fell sideways and seemed to sleep in the bright sunlight, snoring loudly. Rations were distributed according the capacity that the starving people had to carry away the provisions that they were given – it would do no good for a badly weakened man to be given a hundred pounds of flour only to collapse, and be injured, by the weight of provender that was supposed to save him. Major Goodweather surveyed the scene and wrote notes and said that he would, perhaps, write a book indicting this policy while, at the same time, acknowledging that, at this precise location and this exact time, there seemed little alternative to the mission of mercy that he was superintending. Indeed, that was his dilemma: although the policy of rescue seemed misguided and, even, pernicious, in the abstract, Major Goodweather felt forced to concede that these measures were, perhaps, justified in particular cases and this troubled him.

The cavalry scouts returned from their reconnaissance. They reported that the Preacher was on the height of land a few miles away, a windy ridge where there were burnt ruins. Major Goodweather went that way, sickened by the filth and poverty of the farmers clustered around his tents. He ordered that his men strap together the branches of several trees to make a pole at least thirty feet high so that a flag could be displayed from atop that makeshift lance, green with leaves and thrust up into the sky. The white canvas of the tents and the big, glistening and polished wheels of the Conestogas looked bright and efficient and clean next to the mob of ragged beggars clustering around the encampment – the white people were dirtier and more abject than any Indians Major Goodweather had ever seen, another observation that he noted for his report, but expected that he would suppress when it came time to complete that document.

A rocky trail, just barely accessible to his horse, climbed toward the sunny ridge-top where fire had burned the Pilgrim Holiness Church to the ground. The preacher had built a lean-to propped against a timber and lathe wall of the church that was still partly upright, the shack nailed together from bits of broken and burnt wood. Next to the shanty, the preacher had raised a cairn of soot-darkened foundation stones. By the cairn, a big bronze bell rested on a bed of ashes. The Preacher had cleansed the sides of the bell and polished the bronze until it shone in the ashes with an incandescent light, catching the beams of the sun and reflecting them out across the barren country.

Major Goodweather shook hands with the Preacher and commended him upon his work. A man in tattered clothing was assisting the Preacher, digging with a spade in the wreckage of the church. Burnt bibles were strewn about the ground and hymnals split open to show notes and words within their pages and a few rough-hewn pews were heaped up in a pile as to provide fuel for bonfire. Major Goodweather dispatched his orderlies down the trenched, pebble-slick sides of the ridge to report his location to the men in relief camp.

"It’s an impressive view," Major Goodweather said, surveying the land around the hilltop.

"Yes, that is why the church was built here," the Preacher replied.

A green grasshopper, half the size of the Preacher’s thumb, leaped clumsily from underfoot. The grasshopper landed awkwardly, deflected by the edge of a thistle plant so that the insect sprawled on its side. The man in the tattered clothing lifted the grasshopper by its crooked and protuberant hind legs. The insect’s head was black with two large eyes and it had stubby antennae like the prongs of an antelope. As the man held the grasshopper, a slick of tobacco-colored froth came from its jointed and complex jaws and, further, seemed to exude from the armor plating on the insect’s abdomen. The man held the insect up to his eyes and inspected it.

"Ain’t much to look at," he said.

"This is Jeremiah," the Preacher said to Major Goodweather, gesturing at the man. "He had a place down in the valley, a mile from here."

"Sweetgrass ranch," Jeremiah said. "In the Sweetgrass Valley. That’s what the railroad men at the land office called it."

"Sounds promising," Major Goodweather said.

"It was the prettiest place in the county," the tattered man said. "I had the prettiest house and fields in the prettiest place in the county. Orchards. I distilled my own spirits from fruit that I raised. Where it was stony, I grew berries on the vine."

Jeremiah cast the locust aside and it was blown like a leaf away from them.

"Most of their lives," Jeremiah said, "they live underground. They are really a beastly subterranean, mole-like burrowing animal."

"Is that true?" Major Goodweather said.

"Oh, yes," Jeremiah said. "They emerge to plague us from underground. Otherwise, they are content to spawn and excavate in the depths of the earth. Creatures of darkness."

"That was a nymph," the Preacher said. "It doesn’t have wings yet. They fly only during the last days of their lives. They go into the air in a kind of panic, I think, because they know that death is upon them – they sense it somehow."

"They start in the soil and end in the air," Jeremiah said.

"I don’t think we’ll see them this year," Major Goodweather said. "I am quite convinced of that."

"I’m sorry to disagree," the Preacher said. He turned to the tattered man who had seated himself on a barrel of provisions that the Preacher had been given at the ranch. "Tell him what you saw," the Preacher said to the ragged man.

Jeremiah blinked at him and looked as if he were about to cry. "You have to understand about my son. I wasn’t gonna be driven off my stake by vermin. I resolved to stay and so, after my son died, I sent my wife back home on the train and I told her that I would remain on the land and protect our boy’s grave and that since my son was buried near our cabin I wasn’t about to desert that home and my fields and the grave where my boy was resting. I told my wife that I would send for her and, then, I hunkered down and waited to see if I would starve but I didn’t, somehow I made it through the winter; I had jars of the home-brew and I traded them with Indians, I won’t deny that – traded the booze for dried meat and berries – and so I survived the cold months. Then, the sun came and warmed the ground, made the soil fruitful again and the land turned green and..."

Jeremiah paused and gulped air, blinking at them in bright sunlight.

"Then, I stood by my son’s grave and I looked at the earth raised up over him, just a little hillock, and it was all seething, it was bubbling and blistering and hoppers were hatching, coming right up out of my son’s grave, I saw them splitting through the surface of the soil, green joints like a thousand fingers suddenly straightening from being crooked and extending to poke up through the soil. I picked up a rock so large that I had to hold it in both hands and I battered the hoppers to pulp but they kept coming, spearing up through the dirt and, then, crawling away, millions of them..."

"You see," the Preacher said. "They’re swarming. They don’t have wings and can’t fly but they are swarming on the ground."

"When I saw that my son’s grave was their hatchery," ragged Jeremiah said, "I decided that I had seen enough, that this was a sign to come here and await the end. I had two bottles of strong spirits and I brought a bucket of spring-water up here and I’m not going to deny that I had the devilish scheme to use that home-brew to drink myself into oblivion. But I found the Preacher was already at the church. I found him praying here on his knees. He was ahead of me and so I put aside my wicked plan and together we found the bell and hauled it out of the ruins at least as far as you can see here. The Preacher took the spirits – I don’t know if he spilled it out upon the ground or broke the bottles in that gorge..."

"It’s a mighty heavy bell," the Preacher said, gesturing at the curved, female profile of the bronze lying in the cinders.

"I came up here with the thought that I would establish a camp in this place," Major Goodweather said, "but the land is too broken. There are too many ravines that might afford shelter to the Sioux were they to set an ambush for us. If I put a camp here, the Sioux might occupy that coulee and pour fire upon us from that shelter."

Major Goodweather pointed to a hollow place in the hilltop where the land slumped down to deep trench vivid now with small bushes and trees just tall enough to raise their uppermost leaves above the ravine’s edge.

"I agree," the Preacher said. "It is not really defensible. The Indians could come up from the ground, out of the gulch and shoot at us."

"Come down to my camp," the Major said. "It will be safer there."

"God will protect us," the Preacher said. But he went to his mule grazing in the shade of a tree, and loading his leather satchel on the animal, made ready to depart.

"They have kidnaped a white boy," Major Goodweather said. "And rustled a number of our cattle, taken them away from the fort."

The Preacher patted the satchel draped over the mule. "He’s right, Jeremiah," the Preacher said. "Let’s not tempt fate here. We’ll go down to the camp."

"Tomorrow, I’ll dispatch a team of oxen here," Major Goodweather said. "And we will retrieve that bell from the ashes."




The wagons were drawn into a fort. Several sentry posts were established, a few hundred yards from the circled Conestogas and the soldiers lit small fires at those places to warm themselves. The tents and provisions and the congregation of emaciated settlers were outside of the ring of wagons. When it was dark, bugle calls sounded and the flag was retrieved from the tall pole made of branches strapped together by the simple expedient of tilting the makeshift flagstaff out of the earth and setting it on its side on the turf.

Jeremiah was shivering and said that he felt feverish and so he rested on his side close to the large campfire inside the wagon-fort. He wrapped himself in a cocoon of blankets: "I am weary," he said. "I am very weary and my bones ache me so."

After eating, Major Goodweather and the Preacher went for a stroll, walking across the dark moist prairie between the far-flung campfires set by the sentries, making, as it were, a tour of inspection. At one of the small fires to the northwest of the wagons, a couple of men were playing cards while two other soldiers peered uneasily into the dark. The fire was bright enough to make it impossible to see if you looked away from the blaze into the night and, because the two sentinels watching were interested in the card game, they looked back and forth from the area lit by the flames and so blinded themselves as to the vast darkness surrounding them. Major Goodweather and Preacher came quite close to the men and, indeed, shouted out a hallo to the sentries startling them.

"Be more attentive, men," the Major said. "You must be more attentive."

One of the soldiers warned them to stay near the fire. "There is a cliff in that direction," the trooper said, gesturing toward a place where the night’s fabric changed subtly, a decrease in the density of the shadows where the prairie fell away into a steep eroded slope.

The Preacher was carrying a satchel and his Bible and prayer book.

An hour or so, later, Lieutenant Williams rode up to the sentinel campfire where the Preacher and Major Goodweather were sitting. The four soldiers were distant from the flames, huddled together and watching the darkness with sleepy eyes.

"I am making my evening report," Lieutenant Williams said.

In the flickering light of the campfire, Major Goodweather looked sweaty and his face seemed to be flushed. The Preacher was sprawled on his left hip leaning on his arm next to the fire and there was a jug between the two men.

"All well?" Major Goodweather asked.

"All is well," Lieutenant Williams said.

"Beware," the Preacher said. He gestured at the darkness. "There is a cliff over yonder."

Lieutenant Williams nodded and made his horse bow slightly.

"I am telling my friend," Major Goodweather said, "that our mission is to destroy all manliness and courage among the pioneers. Our mission is to end by our charity what is known as the race of self-reliant men. We are the last survivors on this prairie. It is the end of humanity."

Lieutenant Williams did not dismount but hovered over them on his big horse and its eyes caught the flame-light so that they glowed in an unearthly manner.

"The victims of our charity will multiply like locusts and they will devour all the earth," Major Goodweather said. "I am quite confident of that."

The Preacher nodded.

Later, after midnight, Lieutenant Williams heard the sound of voices singing, men’s voices raised raucously in an old hymn, "Come thou fount of ev’ry blessing." The singing came from the northwest sentry post. The little point of fire there seemed to wriggle helplessly in the immense darkness.

"The Major is drunk again," Lieutenant Williams said to George. The Indian looked at him with dark, expressionless eyes.




The dawn was clear and very still. As the darkness lifted from the hilltops and slid slowly down into the ravines, the wet, vibrant air close to the dewy grass and archipelagos of prairie flowers

warmed and, as it warmed, the dense, sweet air close to the ground seemed to be elevated, lifted on high, rising to an immense height in the cloudless sky. This displacement left a breathless vacuum, close to the surface of the earth, a vacancy of wind and odor, without breeze or scent or any sort of motion at all, not a leaf rustling or stirring, but rather a great suspension, as if all the land were holding its breath.

The little campfires of the sentries established far from the wagon fort oozed trickles of smoke rising straight upward from the prairie and, far away, on the hills and slopes, Lieutenant Williams could see the starving pioneers, little groups of them guarding the booty that they had received from the soldiers. For the most part, their packs of seed and flour and saltpork had been too heavy for them and they had set the provisions down in the grass and, then, spent a hard and cold night protecting their supplies, huddled close to them, and, now, Lieutenant Williams could see them stirring, rising to readjust their parcels so that they could continue on their ways home.

"The Major is in his cups again," Lieutenant Williams told Private Anderson. Of course, he would deny being hungover and would say that it was his gout tormenting him and, during the day’s march, the Major would have to ride flat on his back in the jolting wagon, his horse led alongside the Conestoga by a soldier. The Major would be wrathful and, therefore, it was best to make certain that all aspects of the camp were properly policed and maintained in a soldierly and disciplined manner and, with that thought, Lieutenant Williams had the flag once again laced to its leafy pole and, then, lifted up above the prairie where the banner dangled limp as a wash rag in the great silence between heaven and earth.

One of the starveling farmers still squatting in the shade of the wagons pointed to a hillside a couple hundred yards away. Lieutenant Williams saw that the hillside was covered with fallen leaves, indeed, so thickly shingled with the green and brown leaves that the buffalo grass on the slope was entirely concealed. A brisk wind seemed to be driving the leaves before it, causing them to scuttle along in windrows, waves of fallen leaves that shuddered to a stop and, then, started again under the impulse of a breeze that must have been both intermittent and powerful. But the spectacle, at first seeming so familiar, became strange to Lieutenant Williams when he thought that there were no trees anywhere on the hillside from which the leaves could have fallen and it was the wrong season for leaves to fall, and there was no wind stirring, not even the faintest breeze.

"Hoppers," the starveling farmer said. "The wingless ones."

"On the march," Private Anderson said.

His eye now trained to see the armies of grasshoppers, Lieutenant Williams looked around the wagon fort and saw that the prairie was seething with them, wide greenish-grey columns that surged forward with what seemed to be purposeful intent. In some places, the wingless insects advanced in a continuous writhing carpet, obscure currents flowing through hordes to cause them sometimes to splash upward like corn popping in a brisk fire, small detonations along the line of their advance. In other areas, the grasshoppers moved in yard-wide columns, phalanxes of them flowing forward to braid around other streams of insects. The creatures didn’t really darken the prairie. Rather, they seemed to decorate it with fluid patterns, mats of nymphs that divided and, then, divided again before coalescing into a great irresistable flood. In places, the insects appeared to move in accord with some kind of strategy directing their green and dusty-grey regiments, flanking motions and enfilades executed with military precision.

"Do they have kings and generals?" Lieutenant Williams asked Jeremiah.

"Of course," Jeremiah said, "but no one has detected them – the marks of their ranks are concealed."

"They move with surprise speed," Lieutenant Williams said.

The farmer said: "You must dig trenches around your wagons."

"Why?" Private Anderson asked. "What if we are overrun?"

"They will eat your flour and seeds and devour the reins and leather holding your teams to the wagons and, then, the oxen will fill their bellies with them – your oxen will eat them as if they were grass and this will cause the animals to bloat and many of them will die. I know – I’ve seen this happen."

Lieutenant Williams ordered an assembly and entrenching tools were distributed. The farmer said that the soldiers should scratch 18 inch deep concentric channels around the wagons and in front of the insects, ditches into which the grasshoppers would fall and accumulate until they had filled the trench, then, rolling forward over the creatures writhing in the moat to encounter the next channel grooved in the prairie. In this way, the progress of the nymph army might be arrested or, perhaps, diverted. The men stooped over their spades, cutting the sod and prairie grass, as the sentries approached from their look-outs, wild-eyed, out of breath, clawing locusts out of their eyes and hair. The oxen in their corrals bellowed.

One of the sentries reported that Major Goodweather had fallen asleep near their post and, as the grasshoppers encircled them, the commander could not be found despite their search accomplished by wading ankle-deep through the horde of nymphs creeping across the ground.

"Most repulsive," a sentry said. Several locusts clung to the brim of his forage cap.

"There is a cliff near the post," another sentry told Lieutenant Williams. "Perhaps, he wandered off and fell from the cliff."

Lieutenant Williams mounted his horse and rode in the direction of the sentry post. A ribbon of rising smoke rose marked the fire that had been set at that look-out and Lieutenant Williams went toward that place, zigzagging across the prairie to avoid the great rivers and green, squirming lakes of insects. His horse was frightened, eyes showing white and wild, and the animal lunged and bucked when Lieutenant Williams ventured too close to the grasshoppers. A gentle slope ascended toward the campfire, a black, sooty rip in the closely woven tapestry of insects and when he reached the edge of the grasshopper army, Lieutenant Williams’ horse balked, setting front legs into a stiff skid that, almost, unseated the soldier. Williams was flung against the pommel and twisted sideways on the mount to avoid falling and, then, cursing, he dismounted and left the horse behind him, standing baffled and bristling on the edge of the advancing horde.

The grasshoppers burst upward underfoot, enveloping him in a peppery cloud of insects that whirred as they flung themselves into the air. Lieutenant Williams felt the hooked legs of the creatures clinging to the flesh of his wrists and ankles, braided chains of them interlocked and hanging down from his hair and ears. The air smelled like rotting silage and the nymph army made a peculiar sound, a great hissing, bubbling respiration that was something like water boiling. The insects were all around him, crushed beneath his boots and billowing up in clouds around his face and shoulders as he moved forward. At the campfire, embers glowed and the burned place was like a wound ripped in the living flesh covering the ground, locusts venturing too close to the cinders sizzling like bacon in the remnants of the fire. Lieutenant Williams stood with his boots in the ashes, clawing the locusts off his lips and sideburns.

From within the charmed circle of the burnt-out sentry fire, Lieutenant Williams heard a sound like a waterfall. A half-dozen yards away, the grasshoppers were pouring in a continuous cascade off the rim of a low cliff, a place where erosion had eaten away part of the hill and formed a declivity. As the insects fell they batted against one another, clawed legs clasping together to form jagged stars and lacy veils of falling nymphs. At the base of the raw place eroded into the hill, the grasshoppers were a yard deep, a great drift of wriggling insects rolling like a slow, syrupy wave down the hill. Williams was stunned by the spectacle and the sound of the creatures rasping against one another as they dropped from the cliff and, as he stared at this wonder, he seemed to see a knobby, huddled form, entirely blanketed in grasshoppers wriggling fitfully ten or twelve feet from the hot cinders in which he stood.

"Major Goodweather," Lieutenant Williams cried.

For a moment, he stood motionlessly, paralyzed. The grasshoppers were devouring Major Goodweather. Was this possible? If he fell into that writhing, ankle-deep mass would they eat him alive too? Revulsion and panic filled him and Lieutenant Williams’ breathing was disordered as if he couldn’t get enough air to his lungs and he felt dizzy, as if trembling at the edge of a precipice. There was nothing for him to do but go to the aid of his fallen comrade, although he hesitated.

Then, Lieutenant Williams charged forward and bent over the form enshrouded in the plump, large-headed nymphs. Millions of black eyes bulged out of the surging mass of insects and their jaws made a sound like the wind rushing through a forest in the winter. Major Goodweather was entirely clad in the insects, wearing them over flesh and fabric like a living, wriggling chain-mail. Sometimes, he opened a red eye and peered indignantly out through the writhing tangle of insects covering his face. His jaw moved spasmodically , the lower part of the mask of bugs twitching as he chewed them up between his teeth and vomited them out in a wet paste of brown and green legs and wings and carapace. A sort of snoring noise came from the Major and Lieutenant Williams slapped at the supine man’s face and forehead, knocking off the grasshoppers that had come to suck the sweat from his brow and cheeks. The fallen man beneath the insects stank of alcohol and it occurred to Lieutenant Williams that the insects feeding on his sweat must have become drunk and torpid as well – they seemed to slide away from this throat and chest and skull in thick plate-sized masses, scabs of entwined nymphs that drizzling off the man as Lieutenant Williams dragged him upward, pulling at his hair to yank him into a seated position. Major Goodweather groaned and growled and vomited out another porridge of chewed-up locusts and, then, Lieutenant Williams took him over his shoulder, staggering through the clouds of locusts that crashed against him like hot, buzzing hail.

It seemed a long way to the place where the pony was waiting, terrified, the horse’s tail batting against its flanks, as it backed-up, shying away from the flood of insects rolling down the slope. At last, Lieutenant Williams emerged from the grasshoppers, now dragging Major Goodweather by his booted heels over the turf, and, then, rolling him to crush the insects still clinging to his uniform under his body. Major Goodweather sputtered something that sounded like words, but that Lieutenant Williams could not understand.

Three troopers came from the fort of wagons, dragging a canvas litter through the streams and channels of grasshoppers. They carried Major Goodweather back to the Conestogas and set him in the center of the circle of wagons.

Around the fort, the soldiers worked silently to cut trenches in the prairie.

One of the men asked Lieutenant Williams if the grasshoppers had been eating Major Goodweather. A bucket of water was poured over the prostrate man and the grasshoppers still entangled in his hair and beard and caught under his clothes, at his collar and between his belt and belly, were plucked away. His skin was raw under his chin on his throat and his wrists seemed chaffed as if he had been bound by coarse fetters of rope but, otherwise, the drunken man seemed uninjured. He glared up into the deep, empty sky, the high heavens into which all the air on earth seemed to have withdrawn, his eyes red and filled with rage.

"I don’t think they can eat you," Lieutenant Williams said.

The bootleather on Major Goodweathers shoes was rubbed away in places and his belt looked gnawed.

"They can’t eat you," the emaciated farmer said. "They just eat everything around you."

"They can’t eat you," Lieutenant Williams said to the trooper who had asked if the insects were devouring Major Goodweather.

"They’re cannibals," the farmer said. "I have seen them eat one another in a kind of frenzy."

"We must move away from this place," Lieutenant Williams said. He ordered the men to desist from their entrenching work. The oxen, catching the scent of the vast tide of approaching nymphs, bellowed loudly and pawed at the earth. As the first grasshoppers began to dash themselves against the big iron-rimmed hoops of the wagon wheels, Lieutenant Williams ordered their retreat.

Bedded in one of the wagons, Major Goodweather muttered something, then, he cried out, half-choking on the words.

"What is he saying?" Private Anderson asked.

Lieutenant Williams said: "He’s blind drunk. A fine thing! A drunk for a commanding officer!"

Major Goodweather continued his litany: names of towns and villages and crossroads, recited as if he were reading from a map.

"Shenandoah valley" Lieutenant Williams continued. "He was a young officer there with George Custer and Phil Sheridan."

"Why is he naming those places?"

Major Goodweather clawed phantom locusts from his cheeks and eyes.

"I don’t know," Lieutenant Williams said.