Jessy coughed, screwed the lid on the pint of Black Velvet back down, and tossed the bottle into his passenger seat. It landed amid a pair of work gloves, ramen noodle wrappers, and a box of .270 shells. He sat back, closed his eyes, and tried to relax. Snot ran from his nose. With the sleeve of his coat, he wiped the snot away, but it persisted. He cursed the goddamn hay that caused it, rolled down the window, snorted it in, and hawked it out.
As he rolled the window up, a gust of wind caught the two eagle feathers hanging from his rearview mirror. His grandpa had given him one after he killed his first elk. He was very young then. The tribal council had awarded him and his team the second eight years ago. He was a junior in high school, and they had won the class C state basketball tournament. Crowds had packed in so tight the floors sweated. They cheered them to victory and filled him with impossible convictions long afterwards. For instance, he thought he might move beyond this place, but here he was.
He kept the truck running for warmth. Its interior light shown faintly now in the dusk, and having forgotten it was on, he turned it off. The orange sun burned through the snowy haze blowing off the mountains. The cow lay sprawled on the frozen hillside just below him. Wild dogs had run her to exhaustion, broken her down biting at her back legs, and torn into the soft tissue of her ass where blood pooled. Her pregnant belly heaved exhaustively.
Several hours earlier, he had thrown the hay near the cow to eat. She took a few bites and stared blankly across the plains. Her chewed up ear searched for the noise of predators--the dogs they had scared off several hours before he returned to spend the night. The two brothers who owned the cow bickered over who’d have to watch her. That’s when had Jessy volunteered.
Now the cow’s nostrils flared wildly filling the air with vapor.
“I said goddamn it’s getting cold,” Jessy laughed. “Not even the whiskey can warm me up.” He eyed the bottle, grabbed it, and took another sip. “Ayye.” He said with a gapped-toothed grin.
If only the cow could make it through the night and regain her strength, then she might be able to walk back to the corral—to safety. Or so the thinking went. He wasn’t getting much from it-- the pint of whiskey and eighty bucks to fill his truck up and buy a few groceries the next time he and his girlfriend could get to town. It was all the brothers could spare anyway, running the small operation like they did, and he wouldn’t have even asked for the money, if he didn’t feel the goddamn expectation to bring it home.
For three weeks he, his girlfriend, their daughter, and his two little nephews had been confined to their home for either lack of gas or means to travel over the snow plugged roads. He shoveled snow, he shuffled cards, he swung the kettlebell he’d taken years ago from the school gym because no one was using the thing anyway. They watched Judge Judy and Jerry Springer—all the crazy white people perhaps worse off, or at least more ridiculous than they. They cursed the evening news and its weather report. Then they laughed about it, then they planned how they’d ration their meals through the week. The venison ran out and they ate oatmeal, bologna sandwiches, Ramen, and Chef Boyardee. Occasionally she cooked a can of chili and made some fry bread.
One night he snuck out and smoked a joint with the boys in Tony’s bedroom at his grandpa’s house. They watched the Bulls lose to the Timberwolves. Alongside a marijuana tapestry and his fancy dance bustle, a poster of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman hung on Tony’s wall. He proudly wore the colors Black and Red.
As Jessy was getting ready to leave, another buddy showed up with a 30 rack of Bud Light from town.
“Your hero is here, boys,” He said “Here you go. Pass em around!”
“How the hell did ya get out?”
“Took old agency out to 89. But I wouldn’t think about it now. It’s really starting to blow. Hoo.”
The walls in the bedroom creaked.
“Hoo. I can hear it goddamnit.” Tony said. “Snow and blow, snow and blow. Supposed to do the same tomorrow.”
“Goin to get goddamn cold too.” Jessy said.
The cans started cracking open. One got thrown to him, and he worried about getting home. Shee-it, he decided, I never get to hang out anyways. Raelyn would be fine with the kids for one night. With that thought, he cracked his can open too.
“Hey,” Tony said after they sat awhile watching country music videos drinking a few. “Did I ever show you that ol’ revolver grandpa Spud has?”
“Na,” Jessy said. “I ain’t seen it.”
“Well, shee-it, man. You gotta check this piece out.” Tony got up and went to the main room.
When he came back, he walked through the door bow-legged, holding it to his hip.
“Here ya go, partner. Check this shit out.” He handed the gun to Jessy.
“Goddamn better believe it. You know where it’s from? …That piece you’re holding in your hand right there is from Custer’s band... from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Iyyee!”
“Ayye, come on now.”
“No shit man.”
“Yea, ol Spud in there, well his gramps was Sioux, and they kilt all them cowboys, Iyyee! … His gramps musta kilt one too. Took it off one of them sorry SOB’s, and well, that there’s it. Just kept getting passed down.”
Jessy turned the gun over in his hand feeling as though the whole thing might have taken place yesterday… that maybe he could been there, and he raised the gun eye level imagining as though he had just taken it himself. For several moments, they all looked at it with a kind of wonder as they passed it around. Then Cody, who’d just been sitting in the corner observing it all, piped in.
“You know Jerry Iron Shirt? Lives up in the mountains…Marvin’s uncle”
“Yea, I think I know him,” Tony said.
Cody took a drink of his beer and smirked devilishly.
“Well, he’s got something pretty cool too.”
“Yea, what’s that?”
“Got himself a scalp—no shit.”
The room got quiet as everyone looked from one person to the other.
“Shee-it,” Tony finally said.
A strong gust of wind shook the walls, and they all took a drink.
The eagle feathers swung in the rearview mirror as Jessy rolled over snow drifts on his way home. He had to park a block away and walk in. When he got inside, he found the kids still awake and Raelyn on the sofa.
“Where have you been she said?” and before Jessy could answer, she added, “Where the fuck was my phone call? How was I supposed to know where you’ve been?”
Jessy gave her a minute to calm down, and then he explained he was at Tony’s, and some old friends showed up. Raelyn rolled her eyes.
“Why aren’t the kids in bed?” Jessy asked.
“Cause they won’t listen to me you asshole…leaving me here.”
Jessy quietly rounded the kids up and shuffled them to their rooms.
“Stay in there.” He told them sharply.
“Jessy, I can tell you’re drunk. You’re drunk! Leaving me here with the kids all night after I work all day with kids. Working all day at the Child Center. It’s me and kids all goddamn day, and what do you do? Leave me here and go have a good time with your friends.”
Their daughter came back into the living room.
“Darling, what’d I tell you?” Jessy said. “Stay in the room. Your mom and I are talking.”
“But..” she stammered “I need a drink of water.”
The two little nephews came into the room, one chasing the other.
“In your room, in your room, in your room.” Jessy said, his voice gradually getting louder.
“See this is what I’m saying. All night—they don’t listen.” Raelyn went on.
“In your room!” Jessy yelled.
The daughter slumped to the floor and started to pout. Jessy picked her up under one arm and grabbed the arm of one of the nephews while demanding the other to follow. After wrangling them all in their room again, he slammed the door, and they started crying, and Raelyn continued yelling, and the wind rocked the small house.
Jessy walked into his own bedroom, slammed his door, and laid on the bed. A minute later Raelyn ripped the door open.
“No,” She said, “You don’t get to cut me off like that. I’m not done! I do all the work around here, and what do you do, you do nothing…nothing!”
“Oh shut the fuck up,” Jessy said and rolled over.
That’s when he felt one of the child’s plastic toys hit him in the back.
“The fuck was that,” He said and sat up. “Awasapsti, you crazy?
“ Get out of here. Get out! Get out! Get out! You’re not sleeping in here.”
She picked up another toy and threw that. It hit Jessy in the cheek as he turned, at which point he flew out of bed and stomped across the room and tried pushing Raelyn out of the door, but she pushed back and started punching him, and in the struggle, he accidentally grabbed around her necklace and snapped it. It was the necklace he bought her in Sante Fe several years back when he worked a fire down there. Her favorite one. Its brightly colored beads and turquoise gems scattered across the floor.
Raelyn immediately let go of Jessy and gaped in disbelief. She bent down and picked up the strand with the few beads still left on it.
“Oh just fucking kill me,” she said. “Just kill me.” And she stormed past the kitchen into the bathroom in tears.
Jessy waited a minute then followed. He heard the wind and he heard her sobs. A nephew poked his head from his bedroom out of the door, and Jessy pointed a stern finger at him and mouthed to get back inside. Then he searched the drawers to account for all the knives. He knew Raelyn had cut herself before. Scars ran up the inside of her arms, each one an outward reminder that she did not choose this existence, but all the knives were there, and he let her cry a moment longer before opening the bathroom door.
“I’m sorry,” He said and ran his hand comfortingly down her back. “I’m sorry. We can try to get the necklace fixed.”
“It can’t be fixed,” she said and turned toward him.
He kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll get you another,” he said and held her in a long embrace.
Jessy had drifted off to sleep in the truck. When he woke up, frozen snot was hanging off his thin mustache. He pulled the blankets he brought with him over his head and took the last pull from the whiskey.
“Shee-it,” he said.
The wind had picked up and his truck shook. It must be 20 below or more with wind chill, he thought, and he thought about going home, but decided no, he’d remain good to his word. The sky was filled with stars, a sliver of a moon hung among them, and the entire landscape was softly illuminated, grey, and shifting like smoke. The black outline of the cow remained in its posture. If there were any predators around, they must have been wise enough to stay away.
In the distance, the lights of the school beamed high into the night. What a waste of time school was, Jessy thought, were it not for basketball, a complete waste of it. He would not have even attended. He remembered the pervert math teacher always eyeing the girls from across the room and making weird comments. There was the constant rotation of science teachers, and there was that mean bitch, the social studies teacher, who stayed around too long. And his final year, there was that goddamn English teacher always preaching about personal responsibility. Half the year he had them trying to read that same book, Atlas Shrugged, about some shit Jessy would never know, all while he and many of his classmates were already taking care of the kids at home, getting them dressed, cleaned up, and their food put on the table, chopping wood for their stoves and for the elders in the community. What did he know about personal responsibility? God, he despised that man. Luckily they were spared him the second semester after the winter pushed him out.
A gust of wind battered his windows with snow. What it must have taken to live here years ago—defiance. It must have taken some real defiance, Jessy considered, as he slipped back into sleep.
From the blackness of his dreams, the mountains arose, then the valleys and the rivers, and the plants arose from them, and from the plants arose the animals, elk, bear, wolf, beaver… and buffalo. A great herd arose in the valley, and after them, finally, arose the people and their culture. Yes, but this was not the people the creator would have them be. He would have them be Blackfeet, and to be Blackfeet was to be tough.
Jessy saw the clouds begin to build and the plants begin to sway. A great wind began to blow until it became so stiff the trees grew permanently bent. Then the snows came, and the bounty that was, was no longer. The people had to fight with the other animals, with the other tribes, for their very lives, for food. Finally, from the black depths of this winter, from the black depths of his dreams, the sun arose. Jessy stared into the sun. He would not be moved by it, and he continued staring, until at once a great strength of will washed over him, and he felt within him, a scream emerge that did not leave his lips.
He opened his eyes. It was morning and all around him was ghostly silent as though a truce had been struck. He turned from the sun, and looked out his driver window toward the cow. She did not move nor did any more vapor emit from her nose. Jessy opened the truck door and staggered over to the cow feeling slightly hung over. He had the blankets still pulled tight around him. The cow was frozen stiff—icicles hanging from her chin.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jessy said and gave her a little kick... Nothing.
He staggered back to the truck, and after a few attempts, managed to turn over the sputtering engine. He looked one last time at the cow and considered it solemnly. Then he put the truck in gear, and driving down the hill, he figured he might ask the brothers if he could help process her early in exchange for some meat. Some parts would still be good.
After he left, the magpies gathered around. A bald eagle landed, crept forward, and pecked out one of her eyes.
Seven months later, Raelyn gave birth to their second child.