Excerpt from Hard Winter:
Weather and creaking joints permitting, Jim Hawkins could be found every weekend - Saturdays while his wife, daughter and grandson did the shopping, and Sundays while his wife, daughter and grandson did their churching - sitting in that rocker right outside the Manix Store in Augusta, whittling and spitting, spitting and whittling. “Holding court,” Big Clem Ellis often called it, but for a king, Jim Hawkins didn’t say much.
To the children playing in the streets or on the boardwalk, and even to some younger men, Jim Hawkins sure looked old enough to have been a king, one from those ancient times of Arthur, Richard, George, or Louis. Few knew what age Jim Hawkins might own up to, but Big Clem Ellis said he’d heard that Jim Hawkins was right at fifty years old, which might explain why his hair was so gray, face so sun-beaten underneath that battered gray hat, knuckles so misshapen, or why he needed a scarred hickory cane to push himself out of that rocking chair, especially when it got cold, and it got bitter cold in Augusta. Especially the past winter. Folks figured the chinooks would never get there, and the warm winds didn’t arrive in time for many farmers. Come spring, homesteaders by the score gave up, saying goodbye to their mortgages, the unforgiving wind, and forlorn dreams. Bankers would be getting many farms, providing their banks hadn’t died, too.
So, there sat Jim Hawkins in front of the Manix Store, rocking and spitting, spitting and rocking, paying little attention to mules pulling buckboards through the mud and muck of Main Street one Saturday afternoon in April. He sent a splash of tobacco juice into a rusty coffee can resting to his right, and never once missed, while other men gathered about as their wives shopped and their children played.
“Good to see you, Jim,” Harry Carter said as he settled onto the wooden bannister a few feet from where Henry Lancaster, Jim’s eleven-year-old grandson, shot marbles with Big Clem Ellis and Hans Junger. “How’d you-all make out this winter?”
“Passable.” Jim Hawkins spit.
“Hit forty below in December,” Bob Kirk said, “at my place. Coldest I’ve ever seen it.”
“Oh, winter wouldn’t have been too bad,” Lou Cator said with a chuckle, “if it hadn’t been for the weather.”
Everyone laughed at that, except Jim Hawkins, and some pale woman who happened to be riding past the mercantile with her husband in a beat-up, old wagon. The wagon bed hauled a sixty-pound moldboard plow, a trunk, and a small coffin. The woman just stared, her eyes as dead as the rest of her face, and she shivered, like she’d never get warm again, and pulled a blanket over her shoulders, not blinking, not really understanding, then turning away. Nobody noticed her except Jim Hawkins and his grandson. All Jim Hawkins did was run his thumb along the edge of his knife for about a minute, then went to work on the stick. Nagged by Big Clem Ellis, young Henry Lancaster stopped staring, and went back to marbles.
“It’s the government’s fault,” Bob Kirk said.
“Usually is,” said Pork Ellis, Big Clem’s father.
“You blame the government for it being forty below?” Lou Cator asked lightly.
“No,” Bob Kirk snapped. “For all this misery. For getting us in that war. Bringing all them fool sodbusters to Montana, telling them to grow wheat, grow wheat, grow wheat. Grow it for the Army, for those starving folks in Europe. Setting the price so it wouldn’t drop below two dollars a bushel. Them greedy farmers ruined a lot of good land hereabouts. They’re worser than sheep men.”
“Watch it,” said Pork Ellis. “I am a sheep man.”
“You know what I mean, Pork,” Bob went on. “Stock-growers like us, we wouldn’t ever ruin a land like farmers. But I don’t begrudge them none. It’s the government.”
“First come the war, then the influenza,” said J.R. Junger, his accent thick. “Then the winter. Now this misery. It is the end of the world.”
“Worst winter that ever struck,” Pork Ellis agreed, “iffen you ask me.”
“Hard winter,” Harry Carter said, “and more hard times coming.”
Camdan Gow rode up on a red Indian Big Twin with the white wheels - well, once, maybe, they had been white. For the past two or three years, he had been sputtering around on that motorcycle, which he had special ordered from Massachusetts. Briefly, the children abandoned the marbles to study, enviously, Gow’s fancy bike, the only motorized vehicle anyone had seen between Helena and Great Falls. Gow, who owned a small ranch just north of Choteau, didn’t climb down yet, listening to the conversation and nodding a polite greeting in Jim Hawkins’s direction.
“I feel sorry for some of them sodbusters,” said Lou Cator, no longer smiling.
“I feel sorry for me,” Pork Ellis said. “I lost thirty percent of my flock.”
“Maybe Governor Stewart can help,” Harry Carter offered.
“Well, I ain’t buying some bond to build roads,” Bob Kirk said, “not to provide relief to a bunch of poor, ignorant ... what was it they used to call those Texas cattlemen who drove up here?” He was looking to Jim Hawkins for help, but it was Camdan Gow who answered.
“Steer men.” Gow stepped off his motorcycle. “And the old-timers were called she-stockmen.”
“That ain’t what I was thinking,” Bob Kirk said.
“Yeah,” quipped Lou Cator, “but we got children present.”
“Well,” Bob Kirk said, “if that bond’s the best thing to come out of Helena ....” He shook his head, letting the words die.
“Nobody can help them,” Gow said as he made his way to the boardwalk.
“What brings you south, Camdan?” Pork Ellis asked.
“Wanted to see how bad things are,” the Scotsman answered.
“What’s your verdict?” Harry Carter asked him.
Shaking his head, Gow fished a pipe from the pocket of his jacket.
“Worst winter I can recall,” Lou Cator said again.
“Me, too,” agreed Harry Carter.
“How about you, Jim?” Pork Ellis asked. “You ever seen a winter that bad?”
The rocking stopped, and Jim Hawkins tossed his slim stick into the mud, folded his knife, and found the handle of the hickory cane. The court stared at him, waiting, and he pulled himself to his feet, and looked through the open doors of the Manix Store. As if summoned, Hawkins’s wife and daughter filed out.
“Just one,” Jim Hawkins answered at last. “Eighteen eighty-six, ’eighty-seven.” Taking a brown-wrapped package from Mrs. Hawkins, he followed his family down the steps, into the mud, and to his spring wagon.
Harry Carter whistled. “You was here for that one, Jim? That was before my time.”
“That was before Augusta,” Lou Cator said, laughing.
“Come along, Henry,” Jim Hawkins’s wife ordered, so the boy quickly put marbles in the pocket of his overalls, and joined the family.
“I have heard the stories,” J.R. Junger said.
“Stories that make my bones ache.” Harry Carter shook his head.
“Oh,” Bob Kirk said, “it couldn’t have been as bad as this one. It was snowing at my place on the eighth of October.”
“I dunno,” Pork Ellis said.
Only Camdan Gow had left the boardwalk, helping the women with their groceries and into the spring wagon before Jim Hawkins snapped the reins, and rubbed his knee as the wagon moved down Main Street.
“How bad was that winter, Jim?” Bob Kirk called out.
“Hard,” he answered.
“Worse than this past winter?”
“Harder.” He spit into the mud, and flicked the reins eagerly, turning the wagon around in the wide street, heading west, taking his family back toward the Sun River. He stared ahead, eyes pained, remembering something that rose from his soul, thoughts he had tried to forget over the years, memories that strengthened with the stiffness of joints, the whiteness of the hardest of winters, and the bitterest of winds.
Bob Kirk took off his hat to scratch his head. “Well, I don’t believe it could have been that bad. Forty below it was, at my place. And that was in early December. Couldn’t have been worse than this winter.”
“Could have been.” Camdan Gow settled into the warm rocker. “And was.”
Lou Cator grinned. “Old Jim Hawkins don’t say much.”
“He said enough,” Camdan Gow said.
Copyright 2009 by Johnny D. Boggs