Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 5: And the bravest woman...

 I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below, part of  one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued in paperback:                                                                                    
Sarpy Creek, a few miles to the west of Colstrip, Montana, was unspoiled range when the land scouts and energy companies arrived twenty years before. One family, the Reddings, had held out for years against development. Bud Redding's father had brought his family from Indian Territory in 1916 to homestead in Sarpy — rolling, isolated country between the Little Wolf Mountains and the Crow reservation. The day they stepped onto their half-section it was thirty degrees below zero, with three feet of snow on the ground. For a year they lived in a tent. Bud Redding and his brothers grew up in the log cabin that was eventually built; when Bud was twenty-one he married a girl named Vella and moved her in with them.
Bud and Vella eventually bought their own half-section from the government for a dollar an acre and raised corn, wheat, hogs, and cattle. They survived the Depression, bought land from discouraged homesteaders, and raised their children in the same log cabin. Their daughters married and moved away, but their son, John, built his own house just down the road. Bud Redding finally adorned the cabin with asbestos siding, and electricity, and from the front steps he could often see his grandson, John Rial, playing in the coulee where his father first arrived by wagon.
In 1970 the Crow Indians, encouraged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, sold the coal under thousands of acres of private land to Westmoreland Resources. Some of that coal lay under the Redding place. Anyone homesteading after 1914 had received only surface ownership, and a law dating from the time when Anaconda Copper and the Montana legislature were synonymous gave mining companies the right of eminent domain. They used the threat of condemnation to force ranchers to sell and to keep prices down.
Bud Redding refused to sign a contract because he didn't want his land destroyed and a strip mine yawning in the distance. He resisted the efforts of lease gatherers, who came in shifts and kept the Reddings up all night.
"They'd tell us that all our neighbors had signed away their land," Bud had told me when I came to Rosebud County in the seventies, "and that if we didn't sign, we'd get nothing. We wouldn't sign, and they'd go to our neighbors and tell them we had signed. They offered royalties on the coal under our land to anyone who could get us to sign — even our relatives. Some things went on around here you wouldn't believe."
The Reddings hired several lawyers, only to see them fall under the influence of the energy companies. Bud's son, John, had fired a rifle between the feet of a surveyor who insisted he was entitled to work on Redding land, and forced a helicopter full of executives to land after it violated Redding air space.
Bud Redding had died in the years since my first visit. I wanted to see how his wife, son, and grandson had fared, and approached Sarpy Creek in the early evening. The dirt road I had once taken was now blocked by a yawning strip mine. A new road led me around the mine and dropped me into the valley I remembered, except that it was now devoid of stock, crops, and, as far as I could tell, people. It had the feel of abandonment, and I had only to look back toward the ridge to see why. The boom of the dragline punctured the horizon, out of scale with the surrounding country, ominous and undeniably depressing.
The Redding place stood surrounded by little cottonwoods and parched sunflowers. The garden out back had gone to August weeds, under gray skies that would not release their moisture. Drought had brought a plague of grasshoppers that summer, and they moved ceaselessly in the dry grass.
I could see someone in the shadowy kitchen. I opened the gate and rapped on the side of the house. An old woman came tentatively out onto the screen porch, wearing an apron. It was Vella Redding. I reintroduced myself through the screen and reminded her that I had been to Sarpy Creek before.
"There's no one left," she said. "John Rial's living up in Livingston with his mother, the hired man's in Johnny's house." Before I could ask why, she said, "My husband had a heart attack, you know. He was too nervous to withstand the pressure. People who haven't been through it don't know what it's like. They come at you this way and that. They found out we were in debt, they came by and talked so rough."
I asked about her son.
"Johnny's dead, too. He was the picture of health, and then he started having these chest pains. He went up to Billings. The doctor said his heart was all torn up, that he had never seen anything so bad. The aorta was worn paper-thin. I wanted to get him the best help, but the doctor said there wasn't time. He had to operate right away."
We stood on either side of the screen, listening to grasshoppers tick against the asbestos siding.
"After Bud's death, me and the girls all turned to Johnny. It was real bad, losing him.
"If the neighbors had all stuck together," she went on, "I think we could have beat them. But they go after you one by one, they make you feel you're going to end up with nothing."
She had settled for a hundred acres, the house, and some money — a small life estate in arid, now neighborless country, with a view of the dragline boom, explosions that rattled the windows, and the spectacle of the mine stretching toward the house.
"The company lawyer told me, 'You're a rich woman.' I said I didn't want to be a rich woman, all I wanted was my home and my family. I guess I shouldn't have said that. We agreed not to fight the development. I just wonder if all this would have happened without it, if Johnny wouldn't still be here, and John Rial living down the road. I know I shouldn't say that, but I can't help wondering."
She asked if I believed in prophecy. I didn't know what to say. She asked, "Do you believe in the power of dreams?" 
Sixty years before, her nephew had died suddenly, and the family had buried him up by the schoolhouse, a mile away. Later her father said they must move the body, that he had dreamed of the destruction of Sarpy Creek.
"We asked him, 'What was it, a tornado?' He said, 'No, not an earthquake, either. I don't know what it was.' We moved my nephew to Hardin, where he's buried today."
Heat lightning flashed on the western horizon. Dry wind rattled dry sunflowers.
"I've been here seventy years," she said. "I think I'll stay here until... My daughters want me to come live with them, but I don't want to leave. It's nice up there, but it's sure not Sarpy Creek. I don't believe there's anyplace like Sarpy."                                                                       

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