When Billy Stang, four days on the road from upstate New York, forsook Interstate 80 for the two-lane at Ogallala and changed his trajectory from west to north, he was looking for failure. He found it twenty miles east of Alliance; but, since failure was his goal, he saw it as success.
A man to whom money had come without struggle, he felt no qualms about paying what had been asked when what he'd bought was worth a third of what he had paid; nor did he care that his first transaction in Alliance had made him a laughing stock, just like thousands of others, going back to 1904 when they'd lined up at the land office to register their claims and then trundled into the sunrise to try to farm the Nebraska Sand Hills, not understanding that below two inches of sod, that's precisely what the hills were: sand. The layer of soil they had plowed was a deceptively fragile skin stabilizing what had been the largest expanse of dunes in the Western Hemisphere, 19,000 square miles of it on the move, a rolling, roiled sea of sand now frozen mid-tempest, held in place by the roots of grass through which the farmers cut—their furrows, in some places, taking a hundred years to heal.
By the 1970s, most of the Sand Hill farms had reverted to cattle range, which it had been since earliest settlement—in other words, since it had been stolen from the Lakota. Still, the ignorant and the starry-eyed and the unwise-with-money were tempted to try to make the range grow crops. Insurance companies saw an opportunity in cheap acreage, bought up forsaken farms for next to nothing and, finding agriculture unrewarding, sold at a hefty premium to the idealistic and the unwary, thus profiting handsomely from people (mostly hippies and back-to-the-landers from both coasts) who had paid them to lose their shirts.
But Billy Stang was not interested in hippies or insurance companies. He could remember 1970, though barely; so, by his way of thinking, that was not history—not the history he could bend into novels which he believed would fly from bookstore shelves and make him a success finally in his own right…if he could find a publisher. It was those earlier arrivals who captured Billy's imagination, the ones who had lined up to take advantage of the Kinkaid Act (and whom the ranchers derisively labeled Kinkaiders). The legislation had been conceived to put 11,000,000 acres of public land—most of it in the Sand Hills—into the hands of small homesteaders, the only cost to them being the investment of $1.25 per acre per year for five years...along with the unaccounted sacrifice of their sweat, their dreams, their sanity, and sometimes their lives. If he could re-create that life and live it, Billy believed, he could write it—authentically, convincingly—and the failure of those who had gone before would become his triumph.
Billy had pulled into Alliance that warm and gentle day, marched from realtor to realtor, and bought an abandoned farm on the fringe of the Sand Hills near the Box Butte/Sheridan County line. The purchase was made sight unseen. He didn't care about the amenities—or lack thereof. He had his own plans for the land—640 sun-blasted, wind-ripped acres which a masochist might have called Paradise. The hand pump sucked only air; and, the windmill had long since lost its working parts to thieves. He had been able to locate sources for most of the apparatus and a machinist who could mill what couldn't be bought; but he could not find the fins for the fan atop the tower which, had he looked more diligently, he would have seen displayed in a neat row in the window of an antiques dealer in the better half of town.
The boys at the Broke Neck Saloon had snickered, but Billy forged ahead undaunted; and the snickering subsided to head wagging, eye rolls, and eventually, unarticulated concern as he tore down the fraction of the farm house still standing, repaired and braced the listing barn, mended the fences, fit new leather into the hand pump so it would pull water again, and built for himself a soddy after the manner of pioneers compelled to devise shelter in a land bereft of trees and stone. Here he spent the warmer months writing at a table set outside the front door. Winter he mostly spent cohabiting with a woman named Mary Magdalene and raiding the local library for books about the lives (and the deaths) of the sodbusters…until news of the impending Big Storm, seemingly on every radio and every television every minute of the day and night, had become a challenge impossible to ignore. Now he had his inspiration. He would ride out the storm in the soddy and make the experience the center of his story.
When the day came, he took with him a long-haired mutt, six-hands tall, with a chewed left ear and an affinity for danger, an unflagging affection for humankind but a penchant for combat with his own kind, a skilled escape artist driven by an urge to wander. The mutt's previous owner had named him Barker—not for a game show host or for shadowy characters working the midway but because his bark, she claimed, could wake the dead; but Barker had always been demure around Billy Stang, so, when Mary Magdalene declared that she'd had enough of the dog after he’d been apprehended greeting patients at Box Butte General, Billy was happy to assume custody. The transaction was an easy one for Barker, being as how Billy spent as much time in Mary's bed as in his own.
Mary was a sharp-tongued, copper-skinned stunner who, in an earlier time, would have been known as a tart. She liked the idea that she was bedding a novelist. No matter to her that he'd never been published. He was at least a cut above the selection of supposed manhood available in the saloons of Alliance, though she thought him sometimes a little too smug for his own good. He had no knowledge—flesh-and-bone knowledge—of what a northwest Nebraska winter could do; only what he'd read in books, which was a paltry substitute for buried by the blizzard and froze to death. For his part, Billy was proud to have won a woman of some notoriety who looked like she had just walked out of a C.M. Russell portrait, who was his match and sometimes better intellectually, and who rode him like a paint at the rodeo.
Billy saw his venture into the Sand Hill country as another project, research for his next novel. His last had been a concoction about Irish emigration during the Great Hunger. He had made the journey to Ireland by airliner, but returned to the United States on a freighter—for authenticity's sake. He did not compare the authenticity of his private cabin and three squares a day with the horror of being jammed into one of the infamous “coffin ships,” lacking sufficient food or water and on which a third of the emigrants died, the leaky boats escorted by squadrons of sharks feeding off the bodies of the jettisoned. While overseas, his research consisted, in part, of subsisting for as long as he could on a sack of spuds to experience what it would have been like to survive in the famine times. That there had been the luxury of a pub around the corner ready to stuff his gullet when said spuds were gone did not strike him as relevant.
“I was down to one potato,” he declared to the barstool assembly at the Broke Neck two days before the Big Storm. “Made it last a week, and I lived to write about it.” It was part joke, part braggadocio.
In his Sand Hills soddy, he had enough supplies and firewood on hand for a month, if he needed to stay that long. He had snow shoes. There were plenty of blankets and a sleeping bag. There was a thunder mug in a back corner for calls of nature. An oil lamp would provide light. He'd park the truck in the barn to save him the effort of digging it out. He had a tractor in there equipped with a snow blower. It wasn't exactly true to the first decade of the 20th century, and he didn't intend to use it; but it was there, just in case. And he had run a rope from the soddy to the barn, as they had done in the old days…as they were doing still, so that a man or a woman or a child would not become lost in a whiteout fifty feet from safety.
“Yes,” Billy told them. “I'm in good shape out there. I'll be okay. It's only supposed to last a day or so.”
Mary told him not to go, that he didn't know what he was getting himself into, that he should at least leave the dog with her if he wasn't willing to spare himself. His one true friend at the Broke Neck, a heavy equipment operator they called “Loader,” took him aside so as not too embarrass him in front of the others and said, “This ain't no game, now, Billy. This ain't somethin' outta one of your books. This thing comin' at us is as real as death. You should stay home with your woman.”
Billy Stang drove to the soddy late on the last afternoon before the storm's scheduled arrival. He stood for several minutes outside the humble shelter, Barker at his side, and marveled at the beauty of what so many had found to be an impoverished place. The sky, as always, dominated everything. To the north, it was cloudless, the color of cobalt. To the south, paler, like forget-me-nots, and feathered by streamers of high cirrus, harbingers whose delicate design belied the menace to follow. Billy tried to imagine what it must have been like to sense what was coming, to read the sky as the old timers could, but without the advantage of experts and supercomputers and Skywarn networks, with no sure comprehension of the magnitude of the threat and no way to be fully prepared. He had that advantage...that privilege, he realized. He had heard all the warnings, and he was ready. It was almost calm when he closed the door behind him, only the hint of a breeze from the south.
Through the evening and into the night, the clouds thickened ahead of a warm front dragging moisture northward from the Gulf of Mexico. Snow began to fall—hesitantly, at first, and then with increasing vigor as the mild moist air rushed toward a collision with a frigid mass surging into Montana from the Canadian Arctic. It was the kind of confluence of forces which, in spring time, would have spawned tornadoes.
In the morning, Billy could hear the wind through the small windows of the soddy, though he could not see out. The panes were frosted on the inside, snow-caked on the outside. He made breakfast—ham and eggs fried on the wood-burning cook stove. He threw in a little extra ham for Barker, and they ate side by side as the storm slashed the little house, vibrating the stovepipe like a plucked fiddle string and setting the damper flapping, so that it became difficult to control the fire. The meal done, Barker scratched the door to go out. Billy opened it just enough to let the dog slip through, then pushed it quickly shut. Even so, he had felt the force of the wind trying to throw him and the door aside. It left him smiling. He figured he could make several sentences out of just that small battle.
In less than a minute, Barker was back, scratching to get in. Again, Billy opened the door just enough to allow the dog passage, and Barker entered looking like he'd run through a plaster bath. He stood by the stove until his burden melted, then allowed Billy to dry him with an old towel, hopped onto the bed, and went to sleep.
Billy Stang sat at his table, writing tablet in front of him, mug full of pens and pencils nearby, and thought about what he might compose; but, after a while, he became drowsy and joined Barker on the bed.
He awoke to an acrid smell and itching eyes. The stove pipe was rattling, now; the damper flipping like a beached fish. A downdraft pushed a puff of smoke from the firebox into the room. It was a small space. It didn't take much smoke to cause an annoyance; and, if there had been one puff of smoke, there could be more…and may have already been more. He had been asleep. Did the pioneers never sleep, Billy wondered?
He remembered when he bought the stove, the man tried to sell him a hazel vent for the stovepipe—an apparatus that swiveled atop the pipe like a weathervane, simultaneously directing smoke away from the air flow and preventing the wind from pushing the smoke back down. Did they have hazel vents in 1904? Billy thought not, and the man said he couldn't say.
Billy decided he at least needed to stabilize the damper. He had a role of bailing wire, but it was in his truck, and the truck was in the barn. He could go to the barn, get the wire, run it through the damper handle and around the stove pipe and tie it off to hold the thing in one position. It would be a cumbersome business with gloves or mittens on, but the pipe would be too hot to touch barehanded. The man who sold him the stove and had tried to sell him the hazel vent had also tried to convince him to buy an insulated stovepipe, for safety sake. Billy argued that the Kinkaiders hadn't the option of such safety features and had to depend on their own vigilance to avoid danger. In any event, he could probably use the extra heat radiating from the thin metal of a single-walled pipe.
Well, the repair of the damper could wait an hour or so. It was time for lunch. Billy threw fresh wood onto the coals in the firebox, opened the vents, and had a roaring blaze going in minutes. Outside, the wind was roaring, also...louder than before, and he could hear hollow, concussive sounds, like the reports of distant artillery. He poured two cans of chicken noodle soup into a pot. There had been canned foods available in 1904, Billy reasoned, and the pioneers had canned much of their provisions themselves. He set the pot on the stove; and, when it was hot, he divided it between two bowls: a can and a half for him and half a can for Barker. When the meal was done, Billy prepared himself for his expedition to the barn.
Dressed in heavy wool pants held by suspenders, two wool shirts over woolen underwear, a thick wool coat, and rag wool socks, Billy lashed the snowshoes to his knee-high boots, something he'd never done and which proved an awkward affair because the boots were fat where they covered the feet—snowmobile gear rated for fifty below—barely fitting in the bindings and giving him trouble tightening the straps. In his attire, the boots were the one concession he had made to modernity. He dreaded the prospect of having his toes amputated because of frostbite. When he thought he had done the job as well as he could do it, he pulled on a waxed canvas duster to break the wind, a felt balaclava to protect his face, and double mittens—leather outers over woolen liners—for his hands. It was a cumbersome kit. The duster alone weighed five pounds. It was stockman's garb, not farmer's; but Billy liked the look of it. Just the effort of donning the thing had caused him to perspire, and he thought, “Well, I guess I'll be warm enough.”
With that, Billy opened the door and shuffled into the storm, exiting backwards to prevent Barker escaping. The dog was too small, he reasoned, to navigate the snowdrifts or stand up to the wind. The door shut, he turned around and took his first tentative step toward the barn; then a second and a third with more confidence, his first time on snowshoes. By the fourth step, he felt he had the hang of it. At the fifth, a gust of wind nearly threw him down. Only the rope saved him from falling; and he understood in an instant why some called it a lifeline. With each succeeding step, it seemed the storm increased in ferocity, so that by the time he reached the barn, the wind resembled a living thing—an enraged enormous animal—more than just a dumb force of the elements. The idea even crossed Billy's mind as he retrieved the roll of wire from his truck—with the timbers of the barn creaking and the rafters crackling as the structure swelled like an inflating balloon—that maybe the elements were not dumb, maybe they were alive as any blood-filled thing...sentient, even, and angry at the tiny creatures humans failed to recognize as themselves while they went about infecting the earth like a virus.
“Yes,” he thought, “these freakish storms, the floods, the droughts, the wildfires, the famines and the plagues, are earth's immune system, the planet purging itself of something making it sick. But we have brought it upon ourselves through our casual disregard and by our profound misunderstanding that we had inherited this world and it was ours to do with as we pleased.”
He had a sudden vision of humanity as an obese, chain-smoking alcoholic blundering his way through what remained of his life, unaware that his terminal prognosis was self-inflicted and wondering, after the end of it all, why he found himself lying on a slab looking up at a goggle-eyed pathologist ready to saw him open to find out what it was that had made him stop ticking.
Maybe, he speculated, if the storm was the center of his book, this could be its unifying theme—humanity’s pathological unawareness of its place on this planet and how that had brought it to the brink of oblivion. Billy slipped the roll of wire into one of the duster's deep pockets. Will people buy it, he wondered as he slid the barn door shut? Historical novels made best sellers, he decided. Better leave philosophy to the philosophers. He grasped the rope and headed toward the soddy.
The wind was shrieking, now, its fury doubled, and the snow crystals—not soft, fluffy flakes but sharp, hexagonal rods—hit him like a fusillade of needles shot from a cannon, forcing him to keep his head down to protect his eyes. At the brink of a huge drift, he had to close them because the wind, having switched direction, was blowing a plume of snow upward directly into his face. He remembered this drift and how he'd struggled to climb it on the way to the barn and his relief, once he'd crested it, that the lee side was only half as steep as the windward. He had been compelled to climb it by sidestepping, but he was able to descend in a normal fashion. Now, the situation was reversed. Could he slide down the steep side like a skier? He believed that would work if he could keep the tips of the snowshoes up. But how many people skied with their eyes closed? He decided he couldn't waste time with such speculation. Even through all his layers, the cold was penetrating. The quickest way to proceed would be the best.
He never figured out what went wrong. Had he misjudged the pitch of the incline? Had he crossed one snowshoe upon the other? Had a particularly ferocious blast of wind thrown him off balance as it had at the beginning of this journey? Whatever the cause, he had pitched forward, lost his grip on the rope, pirouetted, and landed on his back, head downslope.
When the cold front swept down from Montana, it struck with a fury no one in the Sand Hills had seen in half a century. The temperature dropped from thirty above to twenty below in less than two hours. Wind gusts were clocked in at nearly 100 mph, until lightning struck the weather station at the Alliance airport, putting an end to any further measurement. Billy Stang did not know the particulars of this event, but he knew something momentous—something historic—was happening as he lay upside down in the snow. The booming noises he'd heard in the soddy were nearer, now. It was hard for him to believe, but he could draw no other conclusion. It was thunder. He had heard of thundersnow but had never experienced it. Another one for the book. Well, he thought, if he was ever going to write it, he'd better get moving.
He rolled onto his side, pushed himself to a sitting position, stood up, reached for the rope, and, after some groping, found it. He slogged forward for several yards, his progress made more difficult by a loose binding on his right snowshoe—the result, he surmised, of the twisting fall. He tried to tighten it with a mittened hand and was only partially successful. He knew he would have to move carefully if he were to prevent the snowshoe from detaching completely. He had not anticipated how difficult that would be in the midst of a roaring blizzard. When lightning sliced the sky above his head and struck the barn, the shock wave of thunder smacked him like the backhand of God, and he tumbled again, his fall wrenching the troublesome snowshoe at last from his foot.
Billy Stang considered the possibility that the snowshoes were more hindrance than help; but, when the free foot sunk hip deep at his attempt to stand, he reconsidered and retrieved the errant shoe. He spent considerable effort trying to reattach it, but the cumbersome mittens thwarted him, and the cold was beginning to weary him. Out of frustration and because he saw no alternative, he removed the mittens and succeeded, he believed, in properly reattaching the snowshoe. By the time he'd completed this task, the wind had moved the mittens and the snow had buried them. By the time he found them, his fingers had already gone white. He pulled the mittens on and, for the first time, felt afraid. He was not a religious man, was not sure there was even such a thing as supreme being, but he prayed anyway, to whomever or whatever might hear him, that he get back to the soddy alive. Then he reached for the rope, but it wasn't there. In his search for the mittens, he had strayed away from it; and now he could not find it.
He'd have to trust in the accuracy of his inner compass, as he called it, which had always worked for him in the woods of home where he often hiked trailless and without navigational aids. He pointed himself in the direction he thought would bring him to safety and prayed again to the power who might not be there that he would at least get close enough to the soddy to see it.
He trudged forward, or what he believed was forward. He lost track of time. He lost his perception of space. Everything was white, as though he had become trapped inside a vast and malevolent ping-pong ball. But how can a ping-pong ball be malevolent, he wondered? “I can't write that; that's just ridiculous,” he thought, and decided he might be sliding into delirium. The binding on his right snowshoe came loose again, and he did not notice until he'd stepped out of it and fell on his side. He decided to abandon it. The prospect of taking off his mittens a second time was too terrifying to contemplate. He tried to remove the other snowshoe but could not. He managed to stand up. He took another step but fell yet again. He was aware that, with every breath, he was growing weaker, his body struggling to find the calories to maintain his core temperature against the frigid air he was inhaling. How many calories in a can and a half of chicken noodle soup and a plate of ham and eggs, he wondered? He knew the answer: not enough. He was probably burning his own fat, now, what little there was of it. He had always been a slender man. “Wiry,” Mary Magdalene called him. When the fat ran out, his body would begin to consume muscle. Billy Stang hoped it wouldn't come to that; and, knowing it was futile to try to walk, he crawled, dragging the remaining snowshoe behind, until he could crawl no farther.
In the soddy, Barker waited; but patience was not part of his personality, and he soon became restless. He wanted out…the quicker the better. Unlike many dogs, he was not frightened by the roaring wind, the flashes of lightening, the booming thunder. Rather, he resented being excluded from an adventure. He knew that scratching at the door was useless with the man not around to do his bidding, so he began to leap at it. With each leap, he hit the door higher. With the last leap, Barker's front paws struck the latch, pushing it up and clear of the catch. The wind did the rest, flinging the door open and throwing Barker halfway across the room; but he recovered in an instant, leapt to his feet, and charged out of the soddy into the storm, following the scent the man had left on the rope.
When Barker found Billy Stang, the man was lying face down in the snow. He looked asleep. Barker tried to rouse him by doing what he did best, but the man did not seem to hear. He dug the snow away from the man's face and licked it, but the man did not move. He walked around the man several times, turning and pouncing upon the inert figure every few steps. Still the man did not move. He walked onto the man's back and began clawing at it as he might to dig a hole; but, aside from leaving some scrapes in the wax coating of the duster, his efforts went unrewarded. So he began tugging. He tugged at a pants leg. He tugged at a sleeve. When he got to the ear—almost as white as the snow that filled it—Barker remembered his own ear, and he knew what he had to do. He bit into the pale flesh. At the strange taste of human blood, he hesitated, nearly let go, then bore down harder; but nothing happened. He braced himself as well as he could in the snow and pulled, yet the man remained still. Then, remembering again his own ear and what had happened to it, he shook his head as he might to snap a rat's neck until the ear was in tatters and shreds of skin hung from his teeth and the man moaned.
Billy Stang dragged a mittened hand to his ear as much to muffle the yapping as to find out why it hurt so much. When he felt the dog's tongue on his face, he forced himself up against both gravity and exhaustion and crawled the remaining few dozen yards back to the soddy, Barker barking all the way. When they arrived, the door was open and the fire was out. The wind had scattered Billy's belongings and covered the floor with snow. On the wall above the writing table, five feet from the stove, hung an old mercury thermometer. The silver liquid rested at thirteen below zero.
Billy dragged himself inside and stood upright, shaking as much from the effort as from the cold. He caught a glimpse of himself in the small mirror he used for grooming. He looked like a ghost, except for his left cheek, red from the blood of his mangled ear. He retrieved his buck knife from a rack by the sink. Thick as its handle was, he had difficulty grasping it, but he managed to cut through the frozen straps of the snowshoe binding and free his left foot. He picked up a broom from where the wind had left it lying next to his overturned chair, swept a small snowdrift clear of the threshold, and heaved the door shut, the latch falling into place with a reassuring click.
“At least that's one thing that's not frozen stiff,” Billy observed aloud as Barker watched him from the bed.
The next order of business was to start a fire. Billy opened the firebox and found a fine coating of snow atop cold ashes. He'd never seen anything like that before; and it gave him an uneasy feeling. He cleared it out—extra work requiring extra energy he could not spare—and loaded it with newspaper and kindling and a few larger sticks of split firewood. The problem was lighting it. His wooden matches resided in a mason jar. He unscrewed the lid with minimal trouble and dumped a few onto the stove top. Getting a grip on one was more complicated with his hands in mittens. He had to push a match to the edge of the stove where he could grasp the end of it, but he could not hold the match securely enough to strike it without breaking it or sending it flying across the room. He would have to take at least one of the mittens off, and it was only one degree warmer in the soddy than it had been when he'd closed the door. Well, he thought, if I'm going to get a fire going and survive, I've got to do this.
When Billy removed the mitten from his right hand, what he saw made him want to cry; but he held his tears, knowing that he had neither the time nor the energy for such diversion. Three of his fingers had already deteriorated from white to black. He knew they were goners. Furthermore, the exercise of removing the mitten proved fruitless. He could grip a match no better with the hand bared than he could with it covered. His fingers were too badly damaged. He would have to use his mouth.
Billy rolled a page of newspaper into a wand. He inserted a match between his teeth and drew the match head across the rough iron of the stove. The match did not light. It slipped out of his mouth and landed on the floor. The next one, he bit closer to the head. It broke off without lighting, as did the next. He inserted the fourth match fully two-thirds into his mouth, and it ignited; but the flash of heat against his lips made him gasp, and the match fell before he could raise the wand to it. But now he knew what to expect; and, on the fifth attempt, he was ready for the pain. He held the match in his mouth long enough to set the newspaper aflame before he spat it out. Even with his lips burnt and gums full of splinters, he managed a smile. He touched the wand to the newspapers in the firebox, and they caught the flame. The flame spread and lit the kindling, and Billy Stang felt the flush of warmth for the first time in what seemed an eternity. But the fire in the newspapers faltered and retreated to wafers of orange coals, and the flames on the kindling guttered and died. A blob of smoke oozed from the stove.
“Why!” Billy cried. “What did I do wrong now?”
The vents were wide open, as he had left them when he'd begun his trek to the barn; and he had opened the damper to its maximum. He fished the roll of wire from his duster pocket, but it appeared he no longer needed it. The damper remained where he'd positioned it. He could not understand why this was so, and he did not realize that the three feet of stovepipe rising above the soddy's roof was two feet shy of enough. A snowdrift had formed around it and was slowly covering it, choking off the draft and defeating all attempts to maintain a fire. He tried three more times without success before giving up.
Billy sat exhausted on the edge of the bed for several minutes petting Barker, though his numb hand could not feel the dog's heat. Dusk was falling. The light was failing. He left the bed and, using his next-to-last match, lit the oil lamp. He didn't want to die in the dark; and, if they were lucky, maybe the lamp would throw enough heat to keep him and Barker alive until somebody found them. He was about to climb onto the bed again and slip into his bag when he realized he would surely fall asleep, and the thought of that filled him with dread. No, he mustn't sleep. He knew at least that much.
“I came here to write,” he said to no one in particular, though Barker's ears twitched at the sound. “Better get started.”
He placed the lamp on his writing table, then retrieved his tablet from where it rested at an angle against the thunder mug where the wind had blown it. Had the wind been making a statement, he wondered? He knew a pen was useless in such cold. He would have to write with a pencil, but he could not hold it in a normal writing grip. The best he could do was to force his fingers around it the way one would grasp a weapon for stabbing. Then he sat on his chair and began to make words on paper in large, block letters, childish in appearance but with every scrap of childhood erased from a story told in sentences stripped of adornment. Later, he pulled his sleeping bag from the bed; and, later still, he pulled his other mitten off.
The day after the storm abated, Mary Magdalene stood, hands on her hips in the doorway to the Broke Neck Saloon, and announced, “Anyone want to come with me out to Billy Stang's to see how he's gettin' on?”
There were only three customers at the bar, given the early hour, and all of them volunteered: Billy's friend, Loader; and a man who everyone called “Plowboy” because he drove a snowplow for the county; and a fellow known as “Pimp,” who wasn't a pimp in fact but who enjoyed dressing like one when it wasn't too cold (“fair weather pimp,” the real pimps called him).
They all piled into Plowboy's Ram 2500 king cab, dropping Loader off at his place on the east side of town. He would join them with his monster, as he affectionately referred to it, as though it were a living beast: an ancient, Euclid behemoth with eight-foot tires and a six-yard bucket. When they got to Billy's driveway, Loader took the lead, digging a path through the quarter-mile of drifts that separated the homestead from the highway. The barn they could see well enough, though half its roof was missing. The soddy was barely discernible as a rounded lump in the white expanse, the only thing distinguishing it from other lumps being a TV satellite dish Mary had mounted on a twelve-foot pole beside the front door. Billy had protested. Mary had insisted. It was a joke, she told him—a poke in the ribs of his pretension. And it was serious. Someday he might need it to find his house. Now, there was nothing to joke about; and she was not pleased to see there was no hole issuing smoke through the snow above the place the stovepipe should be. She and Plowboy and Pimp pulled shovels from the back of the Dodge and cleared the front of the soddy by hand while Loader excavated a turnaround for their vehicles.
They found him frozen in his chair, wrapped to his waist in a sleeping bag, pencil still clenched in his right hand, it's tip broken and bloody. His left hand rested upon his writing tablet, the flesh pocked with wounds. On the lined yellow paper, they could read his final words.
“WENT TO BARN FOR WIRE. STORM TRIED TO KILL ME. WHAT WE DID TO THE EARTH. I'M SORRY. STORM DOESN'T CARE. BLINDED BY SNOW. BLOWN DOWN FOUR TIMES. NO, FIVE. NO. DON’T REMEMBER. LOST LIFELINE. DIED FACE IN SNOW. BARKER FOUND WOKE ME. RIPPED EAR. WE LOOK THE SAME. SODDY COLD. STILL BELOW ZERO. COULD NOT MAKE FIRE. NO DRAFT. LIT LAMP. MAYBE WILL SAVE US. VERY TIRED. NO MORE POTATOES. MUST NOT SLEEP. MUST”
“Jesus, he died writing,” Pimp said.
“That's as good a way as any, I guess, if you're a writer,” Loader mused.
Mary Magdalene, frowning, shaking her head, said nothing.
“Musta been stabbin’ hisself to stay awake,” Plowboy observed.
“Guess he knew,” Pimp remarked, “if he fell asleep there wouldn't be no wakin' up.”
“That don't look right,” Loader said, pointing at the foot of Billy Stang's sleeping bag. They unzipped it and found Barker curled around Billy's feet. Pimp lifted Barker from the floor, pressed an ear against his ribs.
“The dog's alive!”
“Oh, thank God,” Mary Magdalene exclaimed; though, at the sound of her voice, the animal turned its head in recognition and fell limp, the fluttering thing in its chest gone to stillness.
“Give him to me.”
“He's gone, Mary.”
“No. You're lying. Given to me!”
“I'm afraid I'm telling you the truth, this time,” Pimp said, handing the dog to the woman.
She opened her parka, unbuttoned the plaid wool shirt and the rough woolen union suit beneath, clasped the dog to her chest and enlisted the assistance of her compatriots in closing the parka around silent Barker. Then, seeing his hind legs hanging below, she tucked them inside her pants.
“Let's go,” she said.
“What about him?” Plowboy asked, tilting his head toward the man in the chair. “We can't just leave him here.”
“He'll keep. This won't.
“Ain't you gonna cry for him, Mary?”
“We don't got time for that,” she said, moving toward the door.
“I'll bring him in,” Loader said; and, as Mary Magdalene and the others climbed into the cab of Plowboy's truck, he pulled Billy Stang, rigid in sitting position with his pencil in his hand, out of the sod house and into the bucket of his big machine, the only thing green for as far as anyone could see in any direction.
Five minutes down the road, with the heat blasting full force in the truck, Mary thought she sensed a slight movement under the zippered parka. Ten minutes later, she thought she felt it again; but she kept quiet, not wanting to jinx it if it was real, not wanting to build false hope if it was not. Ten minutes after that, she was sure she felt it but still did not speak. Even if the dog was alive now, it didn't mean he'd stay that way.
In town, in a room smelling of antiseptic and apprehension, the veterinarian said she detected a faint heartbeat. She wrapped Barker in a warm blanket, gave him oxygen, injected him with something to stimulate his circulation. She cautioned Mary Magdalene that, even if he recovered, he might not recover fully. There could be brain damage. He might not ever again be the dog he used to be.
When a week had passed, the vet told Mary that Barker was ready to go home. By then, though, Mary had already renamed him Billy, figuring he probably would not remember his old name and, even if he did, he might just as soon be shed of it. Why be reminded, at every call, of a bad reputation?
Billy Stang was autopsied, as required by law in the event of unattended death, and was found to have been killed by the cold. He was buried with his pencil and his tablet and his writing table in a grave beside the soddy in which he had died. Among those at the ceremony were the entire Broke Neck crew including, of course, Mary Magdalene and Billy the dog, who remained her companion, well-behaved and barkless, for the rest of his life.