I had rented a cabin north of Billings on the edge of the Bull Mountains. My line of work gets slow in winter and I wanted the time out to do some writing. The snow started toward the end of October, kind of early but not unusual and nothing serious. There was something of a wind chill though. So as I drove down the dirt road from my cabin to the highway I was intrigued to see a figure trudging along. We arrived at my junction at the same time.
The figure turned out to be a girl: stocky, round of face under her parka hood. She was carrying a long rifle. I recognised it as a buffalo rifle, and an old one at that. She had stopped to let me pass. I wound down my window. “I’m headed into town, can I give you a ride?” She regarded me for a moment.
Then, “Obliged”, and she climbed into the cab. She kept the gun between us and sat against the passenger door in a defensive mode.
“Nice gun,” I said. “Looks kind of antique.”
“Sharps,” she replied. “Bin in the family a long time. Daddy, grandpappy, and before him.”
“D’you still use it?”
“Sure thing. Takes down an elk or a deer at near a mile.”
Our conversation seemed to relax her a little. I asked her where she lived. She pointed out a cabin further down the valley.
“Our truck is in the repair shop,” she said. Then, “You on vacation?”
I told her not really, just taking time out.
“Not hunting?” she asked, nodding at the shotgun I kept on a rack at the back of the cab. I said hunting wasn’t my thing except for food. She seemed pleased by this.
“I only shoot to eat,” she agreed. She told me her name was Marianne, and that she was descended from French trapper and Crow Indian grandparents. “My Crow name is ’small woman who speaks to bears’,” she added.
“And do you?” I asked.
“We get along,” she said.
I would have liked to ask her more but we were on the edge of town and she pointed out the gas station and workshop on the outskirts. “Looks like the truck’s ready,” she said, pointing to a battered looking Chevy pick-up on the parking lot. There were two much smarter SUVs parked by the pumps. They were black, glossy with dark windows, heavy-duty suspension, big tires and with shortwave radio masts.
“Those are bear hunters,” said Marianne. “I hate them.”
A group of men came out of the gas station office in new looking, all weather, military style clothes and peaked hats with NRA badges.
I let her out. “Do you want me to hang around in case your truck isn’t ready?” I asked.
She shook her head, “No, thanks.”
Rifle over her shoulder, she strode off toward the repair shop. One of the hunters noticed her.
“Hey lady, where did you get that museum piece?” His colleagues laughed.
Another of them stepped in front of her and said, “Do you like handling long ones?”
Marianne ignored them. I began to get out of my truck, reaching for the shotgun. A mechanic came out of the workshop and greeted her. He was a big guy carrying a tire iron and the hunters backed off, got into their vehicles and drove away with some showy revving and wheel spins. Marianne went into the workshop with the mechanic.
In town I did my marketing and set off home. Marianne’s truck had gone from the repair shop so I guessed all was well. It was dark by the time I reached my cabin. Across the valley I could see a little yellow light on in my neighbor’s. Somehow, it made my solitude feel lonelier rather than comforted.
Next day I was making coffee when she knocked on my cabin door. She was wearing snowshoes and had evidently hiked across the valley. I asked her in but she said no thanks.
“I’m off in the forest for a couple of days,” she told me. “Maybe you could look out for my Grandma, she’s getting a bit forgetful. I’ve left her food and so forth, but if you don’t see smoke coming out the chimney go down and check. It means she’s forgot to light the fire.” I said I would do that. I asked if I should go down anyway. “No, just keep an eye on the smoke is all.” She turned to go, and then over her shoulder, “Thanks for the back-up yesterday.”
I didn’t think she would have noticed. “No problem,” I said, and watched her set off back down the valley. Her strides were light and easy and she seemed almost to float over the snow.
A couple of days went by and the smoke kept coming out of the cabin chimney. On the third night I was woken by what sounded like scuffling or crunching snow outside. Bears and deer would sometimes come by so it didn’t bother me. In the morning I went out and looked around for any animal tracks. But it had snowed in the early hours. Except that, by the door to the cold store, where the new snow hadn’t fully reached, there were what looked like paw prints. I’m not an expert but they were big. Then I saw the fish – four big trout laid out by the store.
Looking down the valley I could see that Marianne’s cabin did not have smoke coming from the chimney. Her truck wasn’t there either, which it had been the night before. I got my skis out and went down the valley. Looking through the cabin window showed me a near empty interior: a table, a couple of straight-back wood chairs. The fireplace was empty of ash or wood.
I tried the door. It was unlocked, so I unclipped my skis and went in. The place felt very cold. There were no bedclothes on the beds, and in the kitchen only an old fry pan on the stove. The inhabitants had moved out. Back outside I thought I could see wheel tracks under the recent snow, but it was hard to tell when they would have been made.
So, I went back to my solitude. The trout were great. I figured the bear must have wandered by before Marianne dropped the fish off and the snow came. The state of the cabin was more of a puzzle but I didn’t waste too much time brooding on it.
A few days later I drove into town. I pulled into the filling station. A State Park Ranger’s Jeep was parked by the repair shop, and the ranger was standing talking to the mechanic, who pointed at me. The ranger came over.
“Cal here tells me you were around when some hunters hit on the Indian girl?”
Cal joined us. I confirmed the information.
“Have you seen her recently?” asked the ranger. I told him about my visit to the cabin and the old lady and the arrangement to watch out for smoke from her fire. I asked why he wanted to know.
“Kind of curious situation,” he said. “We found two trucks in the parking area near the grizzly reservation: fancy looking vehicles. No hunters. So when there was no show after three days we sent a chopper out to see if we could spot them.” He paused.
“And did you?” I prompted.
“Sure thing. Well, two of them anyways. In their tents – about a day’s march from their vehicles. Tents torn to shreds, the two guys the same. Had to be a grizzly, but it was one hell of an attack. My guess it was two very hungry or pissed off animals. Their guns were there, unfired. That’s good because they shouldn’t be after grizzlies in that area.”
“And the other two?”
“Nary a sign. We’ve sent out a search party now the snow’s melting.”
“So what’s the interest in Marianne?” I enquired.
The two men looked at each other. It was Cal who answered. “She knew this territory better than anyone. She could track and live off the land and she loved the bears. Hunters used to try and hire her but she always refused.”
“She told me her Indian name,” I said. Cal seemed to relax.
“She must have trusted you,” he said. “Sure, some think she was friendly with them. I wouldn’t know.”
The ranger chipped in: “We figured she might help us with the search – Cal’s right, she’s got the woods in her blood.”
By the New Year I’d had enough snow and solitude. It was getting very cold and my supplies were running low. No more trout arrived. My attempts to shoot anything edible were unsuccessful. I had to dig out my track, down to the road, which took three days hard work. Luckily the snowplow had come by and I got into town. Cal told me there was no news on the missing men. The other two were written down as grizzly bear predators who had their comeuppance. That they were from New York didn’t make the coroner’s verdict less unsympathetic either.
“Sad as this may be for the families of these men, it is a valuable reminder of the risks we run if we threaten our wilderness and break the law,” he pronounced. That did of course provoke political controversy way beyond state boundaries.
I was back in Billings in late May, when the snows had mostly melted in the high country. The local news was full of the discovery of two bodies, presumed – the reports said – to be the other members of the hunting party attacked by grizzlies the previous winter. One was in a ravine, clutching his rifle, which had been fired. The other was at the edge of the same ravine, having been shot in the chest. There was no clear explanation, and it was assumed, for the purposes of the legal process, that there had been an accident. Maybe even a quarrel, given both bodies carried partly consumed quarts of hard liquor, with the evident fatal results.
The proximity was too much to resist. I drove north and found Cal in his workshop. He was friendly. I broached the subject of Marianne and the deaths of the hunters along the lines of: “Had she come back?”
He looked at me in a considered way. “No, I ain’t seen the lady,” he said. “But I expect she’s out there somewhere, her and the old one.”
“That’s good,” I said. “So what do you make of what they found and what’s been decided?”
The mechanic looked at me hard again: “Seems reasonable to me.” Then he smiled and went on: “Mind you, the doc who did the autopsy – he’s a customer of mine, bad driver, good doctor — he said the wound in the chest was massive. Straight through the sternum: shattered it. Caused by a really heavy-duty shell, .40 plus. Well them hunters had lighter calibre weapons. Nobody paid much mind to that though.”
We shook hands. “If you see her, give her my good wishes,” I said.
Cal nodded. “If I see her, I sure will.”