The United States governement broke every treaty they ever made with an Indian tribe. But this tribe
had a legal deed to their land. Only trouble is, it's been missing for 100 years. Someone is about to find it.
By Linda Jencson
Something was wrong.Someone, or something, was after
her, hiding in the dark endless passages.Someone familiar, yet somehow unknown.
Her breathing was rapid and she tossed in her uncomfortable position, drawing the attention of other, sleepless passengers.The pleasant dream had become a nightmare.The
westbound Amtrak jerked to a rattling stop and the young woman woke suddenly.For
a moment the long, dark train car looked like one of the passages from her dreams.
Ever since that trip to the FieldMuseum with her parents at the
age of seven, in dreams recurring ever so often, she has been led down long hallways filled with ancient artifacts.Wandering endless marble halls, she passes statues from Egypt,
the shining weapons of gladiators and Vikings, gowns and pointy veiled caps of medieval princesses, masks of ancient Aztec
Kings, and glittering jewels with deadly curses on them.
This dream was the same, yet different.All the others
had been joyous inspirations, filled with mystery and adventure.This new variation
screamed of terror and desperation.Was it because her dreams—her daytime
dreams—were now so close to becoming reality that the dream had turned from fairy princesses to dank dungeons?
She shivered in her uncomfortable second class seat, and pulled the tiny white Amtrak blanket up to her chin, exposing
her cramped and chilly feet.Although she was cold, she was sweaty, and that
made her colder.Not much use trying to sleep again now.
So she sat up and looked
out the window.The flat prairie disappeared into deep, inky darkness.The sky was clear, with millions of stars, far more stars than anyone ever saw in a city.The train was not moving.In the darkness beyond she saw her
own reflection: mousy brown hair, in dire need of a civilizing comb, tired hazel eyes, her 28 years showing her first wrinkle
across the forehead.Everything about her, average—irritatingly average.
A quiet, personal sigh escaped her, and looking deep into her own eyes, she pondered her journey.Her future: the jump-start of a new career, a job, on small grant money, cataloging
the Indian artifacts housed in an obscure North Dakota county museum.Well, it wasn’t the Louvre or the Smithsonian, but it was a start. The
little-known—okay, face it, utterly obscure—collection may hold some significant finds.Her reflected eyebrows rose at the thought.It could be me,
she thought, I would be the one to gain notoriety by publishing what I find to the scholarly community and international tourism.
Yes, that recurring dream had had a powerful influence over her life—it had decided her career path.But why the new nightmare variation, tonight of all nights?The
tired hazel eyes blinked at themselves.
Unable to perceive much on the dark prairie beyond the window, she delved inward again.What would she find in her “own” museum?Would it be beautiful,
exotic, significant?Would it make her career and lead her out of the small town,
rural museum work funded by temporary grants, to a permanent position at a world class museum in some major city, maybe on
either coast, or, better yet—Europe?Her mind
drifted down the hallowed halls of museumdom.
Karen dozed once more, dreamlessly, and woke to full daylight.The train
was still immobile.She looked at her watch: .
Because the nearest airport
that accommodated anything bigger than a crop duster was a hundred miles from her destination, and because she was terrified
of flying, Karen took the Amtrak.It was supposed to be less than a day’s
journey from Chicago to Cropper, ND, but trouble in the under-funded national
rail system had delayed the train’s departure nearly three hours.There
was a longer delay due to flooding outside of Fargo, and now this.As the car sat on the siding for minutes extending into hours, she wondered why no one had bothered to
make an announcement to the passengers.
“Excuse me, Conductor,
wait!”He ran right past on her first try to get his attention.On his next pass down the car, Karen stuck her hand out.She
missed the uniform coat she was reaching for, but her awkward grab conveyed a message.The Conductor stopped with an irritated, “Yes, Miss?”
“Why have we been
sitting here for over an hour?”
“Grid lock, Miss.There’s a bomb threat in Milwaukee
holding up train traffic in all directions, and a derailment up ahead.Some drunken
fool in a truck on the tracks.Made the engineer of a big freight train throw
on the full brakes.The collision with the truck knocked the coal train’s
wheels off the tracks.”
it was the first sound Karen had heard from the middle-aged woman across the aisle.“Was anyone hurt?”
but he flat-wheeled it.By grinding to a stop from full throttle, the engineer
flattened the wheels of the entire train.They skid for more than a mile when
that happens, nothing left of one side of the wheels.Very expensive to replace
all those wheels ma’am.An engineer’s worst nightmare, short of running
down a little kid, but it didn’t roll the cars over.They missed the driver
of the truck.He got out before it hit.”The conductor rushed off down the aisle.
Karen turned to her neighbor.“He sounded disappointed that they missed the fella.”
“Yah, he did at that.How far are you travelling?”
“I’m on my
way to Cropper, it’s the county seat of ah, let’s see, HjemgaardCounty.”Karen pronounced the word uncertainly.
The woman gave a slight
laugh, her face round and friendly.“That’s pronounced ‘Yomgard.’Sounds like you never been there then?”
be my first time.”
“You got family there
Karen noted the regional
mannerism of ending sentences with there, and then, and there then.Her companion
had it bad.“No, it’s… I’ve taken a new job there.I’m going to be working in the little county museum.It’s my first real job out of graduate school.”
“Oh!Well it’s a nice one, for a place so out of the way, there.A lot of big events happened ‘round Hjemgaard, and they have souvenirs and things donated by all the prominent
local families.Lotsa pioneer stuff and Indian artifacts.I’m from Sourire, in the next county over.Our little
museum can’t compare to the one in Hjemgaard.I’m Mrs. Orv Milpots,
by the way.Jeannie Milpots.”
“Karen, Karen Verbiak.Nice to meet you.So you know the region?”Karen was wondering why everything the woman said ended in an upswing, as if she were
asking a question.Was she uncertain of herself?Karen remembered they talked that way in the movie Fargo,
too.It drove her nuts by the end of the film.She’d hoped it was a symptom of living in the eastern end of the state, but from the sound of it, the lilting
upswing and the ‘there thens’ got thicker as one journeyed west—the direction she was headed.
“Oh, yah, born and
raised here. We have a farm, been in the family 86 years now.My husband’s grandpa bought it from the original homesteader, they moved on to the Oregon Country.We’re right on the edge of beet country and wheat up here, so we have acreage
planted in both, yah.And it’s a good t’ing.Sometimes what kills a wheat crop won’t touch the beets.We
do soybeans, too.We’ve always got some-tin’ in the fields at harvest
about the farm crisis.”
“Oh, yah, it’s
not easy bein’ a farm family.If the weather don’t kill your crops,
too many people doing well drives down your prices.Too good a harvest for too
many farmers can be just as much of a disaster on the market as a flood or drought or hail or killin’ frost or untimely
blizzard.”She rattled off the disasters like a shopping list of crises.
“Everything but locusts.” Karen commented.
“Oh, yah, we got the grass hoppers, too, but they don’t come every year.And we wouldn’t trade the farm life for the world!All that crime
and corruption in the big cities.Airplanes ramming into skyscrapers.Our kids grow up good around here.We don’t have to
worry about ‘em gettin’ into t’ings like you do in the big city.”She pronounced “about” like “a-boat.”“Are
you from the big city there?”
laughed a little and smiled.From the woman’s viewpoint, it sounded as
if all big cities were one.“I’m from Pittsburgh
originally, more recently Chicago.”
it out here, then.A girl alone.It’s
real safe.You are alone are you, no husband?”This time the upturn of tone at the end of the sentence was clearly intended to be a question.
“Oh, no, too busy
with grad school and working on the career,” Karen said, proud of her tenacity and accomplishments.
“Oh, yah, well, that’s
too bad, but I’m sure it’ll work out some day,” said her companion.
They waited in silence.Half an hour later Karen got up and walked to the dining car.The staff was still getting tables ready, but they seated her anyway.As a waiter was putting her plastic flower in its plastic vase, the train lurched slightly and began rolling forward.Karen realized she was sitting backward to the motion and moved around the table to
face the front.
too settled there, we’re just backing the train.”Her waiter handed
her the menu.As she looked it over she realized it would be a very long trip
indeed.Microwave pizza by the slice, main breakfast entrée?The waiter read the expression on Karen’s face.“We
weren’t expecting such a long trip,” he explained.“We’re
going to have to try to squeeze three extra meals out of our supplies for you folks.They don’t restock the dining car until Spokane, and we’ll
be a full day late by then.”
“But I’m only
going to Cropper.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”The waiter absent-mindedly moved on.
Karen realized that the
delay would be a long one.Really long.“Waiter!”
He moved back towards her.“Yes?”
“Does this mean we’ll be arriving in Cropper during daylight hours?I mean, this could be good in its own way.I was supposed to arrive in
the middle of the night, but now I’ll get to see the place and won’t have to go straight to bed when I get there.”Her arrival had been scheduled for .Amtrak did that with small towns on the schedule so that passengers would be awake
for the grand entry into major cities like Spokane or Duluth.
“Yes, Ma’am.”The same absent-minded
reply didn’t make it clear if he was just being generally agreeable, or if he knew something about arrival delays.In a couple hours Karen would dial the number for her new employer and let them know
of the delay.She should have called in the middle of the night, but how do you
know when your arrival is delayed if you’re asleep.Hopefully they’d contacted the railroad before sending anyone to pick her up.
The car lurched to a stop and then slowly began creeping in the opposite direction.Karen was facing backwards again.She moved to the other side of the table
with a big sigh.
* * * *
The landscape had grown
increasingly flatter as the train moved on towards Cropper.Now, with only some
ten or twenty miles to go, Karen was back in her assigned seat.She stretched
and put down her book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and examined the landscape
with eager curiosity.Fields rolled on in parallel perfect rows, as far as the
eye could see, on both sides of the train.But some fields had large areas where
the plants were dead, or absent entirely.Big bare patches of lost revenue.
The land was dotted with the occasional farmstead, each with a big old foursquare house, traditional gambrel-roofed
barn and numerous outbuildings.Most included battered, topless silos, obviously
long out of use, and smaller modern aluminum grain bins clustered around the old silo’s base.Some farms had an older, smaller house near the big foursquare, and a few had sod houses eroding to dust
in one corner of the yard.A line of trees framed the farmyards on at least one
side.Karen noticed it was always the west side.Wind direction was pretty predictable in these parts.
In the nearer farmyards she could make out piles of refuse—old cars and appliances just dumped out into certain
areas of the property, rejoining the elements, more slowly than the old sod houses.Some farms had nothing but the aging hovel and a trailer or two.Obviously,
fate had not been equally kind to everyone.The trailers all looked old and run
down with rust and dented walls.Most had old tires piled on the roof.Roads intersected the train tracks every so often at perfect right angles.Karen thought they looked sad.There must not be a hill or a curve in
the entire state, she thought.
“It’s the flooding.”Mrs. Milpots had taken an interest in her once again.
“The dead patches.Drowned the seedlings in the May flood.Not
a long enough growing season to replant here then.”
“Oh.That’s too bad.”There was a long pause as Karen
mulled over which of her many questions to ask first.“Why do they put
tires on the tops of the trailers?”
“Poor folks.They can’t afford a new roof when the old one blows off.The tires hold the roof down in our winds.This is North
Dakota, we got the wind.Tires work especially good when
it rains or snows and fills ‘em with extra water weight.‘Course
they sprout mosquitoes that way, but the mosquitoes will find a body anyway.”
“Wow.Is it windy here often?”
Mrs. Milpots laughed at
that.“Uff-da, we do get the wind here.”
“I said Uff-da.Everyone in these parts says it.It means,
well, sort of a Norwegian ‘wow,’ but to my mind, it’s usually not a good wow.Sort of like, ‘Uff-da, we got another twister comin’ in from the nort’ west.’”
“Twister, you mean
they get tornadoes here, too?! I thought blizzards were the only thing to worry about in North Dakota.”
“Oh, yah, we get
tornadoes.There’s one thing they say about North
Dakota, we got the weather.Every kind.Every extreme.Like they say, ‘35 below and 50 mile
per hour wind keeps out the riff-raff.’My son has a bumper sticker he
got in Fargo, says that on his pickup.And
it’s true, you know.Takes a certain kind to live and thrive in these parts.Lots of people couldn’t handle it.They
go someplace easy, like Duluth.”Mrs.
Milpots eyes sparkled when she recited the numbers from the bumper sticker, as if it made her really proud to be a part of
Karen’s smile concealed
her growing concern.What had she gotten herself into?“Are there many towns out here, near Cropper?”
“Well, yah, we just
passed New Hope five minutes ago.”
“You mean that was
a town?It just looked like an extra big, extra run-down farmstead.”
“Well, you couldn’t
see it too well from the train, could you?It’s about two, maybe three
miles from the tracks there.Has 200 people, third largest town in the county.”
“Third?”Karen’s eyes went wide.
“Oh, yah, they got
a tractor store and a Lutheran Evangelical and an Evangelical Free Church, and two bars, and the hardware sells some groceries,
too.You can rent videos.They got
their own elementary, until it closes next spring.”
“Oh.”Karen didn’t quite know what to say, “And how big is Cropper?”
“Oh, it’s a
regular small city.”Mrs. Milpots’ eyes closed to a slit and her
cheeks rose in a small, pleasant smile as she imagined the sights and sounds of the county seat.“They have a Dairy Queen and a Burger King. They even have a real restaurant.There’s two groceries and a ladies’ clothes store, and a beauty parlor in the back—she’s
really good with most any kind of hair—and a men’s wear annex on the hardware.Three, four bars, and two have live music on weekends!Sometimes.One’s the VFW of course, but they don’t mind if you’re not a member.There’s even a public library.Then,
there’s the courthouse, and the county high school is in Cropper.”
The longer she spoke, the more each sentence turned upward in tone at the end, like a long paper scroll starting to
curl at the bottom.Karen had to wonder what all that sentence-curling meant,
or if it meant anything at all.“And in addition to the two usual Lutheran
denominations, there’s a Catholic church!What church are you, honey?”
“Uh, well I haven’t
been attending lately.”
“Well, as they say,
there’s no better place to meet a good man.No wonder you’re still
To Karen’s relief, the threatened sermon was interrupted by the arrival of the conductor, passing through the
car.“Next stop, Cropper!Five
minute stop at Cropper!Departing passengers please have your carry-on baggage
ready to go.Cropper!”
There was no evidence of a “regular small city,’ as they pulled into “town.” Only an old Victorian railroad station, very small, made of planks—what the experts call “stick
style,” with a broad, low, overhanging roof that extended to the edge of the building’s wooden platform.It was painted a bright, sunny yellow, with weathered blue shingles.Karen thought it looked suitable for freight, chickens, and perhaps some cowboys.She gave it a high quaint-score.
To her surprise, most of the men waiting on the platform were indeed wearing cowboy hats.She liked it instantly, a living relic of bygone times.Altogether,
seven people were on the platform, awaiting passengers, or journeys of their own.She
wondered which one, or ones, represented the museum.
Karen gathered her things—two
medium-sized soft luggage pieces, her pillow, purse, books, jeans jacket and backpack—all a little worse for wear.
“It was nice meeting
you, Mrs. Jeannie Milpots.”A nod of the head to her travelling companion
and Karen waddled toward the front of the car, battering passengers in aisle seats on both sides with various luggage and
loose books as she went.“Excuse me.I’m sorry.Excuse, please.So sorry!”The conductor helped her with one bag as she stepped
from the train onto the platform.“My other luggage…”
“You go down off
the platform.You can catch them unloading it onto a truck cart.Or you can wait and pick it up by the parking lot after you meet your party.You are meeting someone, Miss?Please step forward.”
Karen stepped from the
train and stood on the wooden platform, gazing from face to face.A tall man
in, perhaps, his early thirties, with a cowboy hat, jeans and corduroy sport jacket came forward.His broad smile was simply charming.“Would you be Dr.
Verbiak?”She looked up into the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen.
His smile broadened further.She could see the dark gap of a missing premolar to the left side of his otherwise
magazine cover face.Well, nothing was perfect, and she was glad—easier
to keep the distance.“I’m Tom Matthews.”He grabbed and lifted, but didn’t quite remove the hat.
He took both of her large
suitcases and they descended from the platform.A dozen or so pickups and a couple
SUVs were scattered in the parking lot, in addition to a saddled horse and another hitched to a small wagon.In the distance, a massive grain elevator loomed over empty prairie.It was too picturesque for words.
over here.”Both spoke at once.
Karen tried again, “Where’s
the town?I don’t…”
He tossed both bags in
the back of a silver Dodge Ram.“It’s about three miles north.”He gestured to Karen’s left.“They
weren’t willing to relocate the tracks for a tiny town like Cropper.We
were real lucky to get the station.It’d be a ghost town by now without
it, like all the other towns in the county.Of course the freight tracks go right
up to Cropper’s elevator, but they don’t route Amtrak off onto little sidings like that.Do you have any other bags?”
“Yes, they told me
they’d be on a truck cart.What’s a truck cart?”Karen looked around.
“Over there,” Tom said. They’d probably been using the
same wooden cart with solid iron wheels since steam engine days.
She identified her third
unmatched bag and two large cardboard boxes.“You travel in style, Ma’am.”There was that broad smile again, or was it a smirk?
moving here for nine months, and Gucci doesn’t make a special toaster bag, or any other small appliance carriers.They told me that accommodations would all be arranged.Where are they going to put me?”
They were in the truck
and on the road before she got an answer.“Well, they told me to
take you directly to the old Peterson Place.You’ll have the whole house to yourself.It’s
a little farmstead just north of town.Furnished, I guess. It’s been empty ever since old Mr. Peterson passed away.The
kids inherited it but never moved back.Sometimes it’s hard to sell a farm
up here.The multinational megafarms buy up what’s next to the acreage
they already have, but even the agribusiness folks aren’t much interested in HjemgaardCounty.Every now and then a gentleman
farmer from the city will buy a piece of land out here for a hobby farm.The
weather usually drives them out after their first winter.”
Karen wondered if the socio-economic analysis was common knowledge in these parts, or a product of
Tom’s obvious origins outside the region.
“There’s Cropper.Don’t blink, you’ll miss it.”He gestured off to his right.A collection
of low buildings huddled together in the distance on the flat, flat prairie.The
town elevator towered above the other buildings by at least two stories, and some other large structure loomed nearly as large
in the distance.The museum perhaps, or maybe the courthouse.She loved the quaint railroad station, but the town…she was hired to live here for a whole year!Would they know what a caramel latte was?
“Oh my.”Karen was not at her articulate best.Rows
of low plants went on and on.Followed by a section of tall plants, their heads
just beginning to bud, large and green—sunflowers?
“This is the sunflower state, right?Is that sunflowers?”
“Yes ma’am.Life in the big city taught you
something, didn’t it?”Karen wasn’t sure if that was flattery
or criticism.She was surprised to feel herself blush.
Fields of the low plants stretched in every direction, nearly every field having a portion of brown, dead land from
the floods.The sky was endless: bright blue like you just don’t see in
the urban east, she thought, with big white puffy clouds to the west and south.Every
so often a farmhouse and accompanying out buildings would interrupt the endless green rows.Most of them looked abandoned.“Oh my!”
“One of the few places
in the world so flat you actually observe the curvature of the earth, especially at sunrise and sunset.Remind me to take you out into a field for one some day.”
Karen chuckled, hoping
it was a joke, or was he trying to flirt?“Is that what people do out here
for fun—field sitting?You don’t sound like you’re from these
parts, may I ask…?”
by way of Raleigh, Cleveland, Seattle and Cut Bank.”
“Another stop along
the ‘Empire Builder’ Amtrak route, it’s in Montana.I had a little antique business up there, cute place, real rustic, lots of wagon wheels and old buggies.Too bad I didn’t have any customers.”
“Is that what you
do in Cropper—antiques?”
“Yeah, part of the
year up here.These old farmers never throw anything away.All the abandoned houses are full to the rafters.You can
get fantastic bargains on some real rare finds at estate auctions.Then I resell
them in Duluth.My main shop and
home are up there.This is just my working vacation, summer home.”
“Oh . . .”Was it the train trip that had reduced her vocabulary to five words or less?“My.”Karen wondered, but
didn’t express the thought, why have we passed by the town?
They drove on for a few
more miles in silence.
your new abode.”Karen looked out the window to her left as Tom drove over
the grate on a dry culvert and pulled into a farmyard.It looked like one of
the abandoned ones.There were tumbleweeds lodged in falling barbed wire fences,
and virtually no paint left on the house or the three outbuildings.The
few remaining chips of painted hinted, but were insufficient to prove, that the house used to be yellow.Only the largest barn still had a significant trace of its color—a classic barn red.The brown grass was almost waist deep except for a track up to the house, apparently mowed recently in
Karen’s foot caught on a clump of plant.There were little mounds
of them all over the yard, even the mowed area showed lumpy evidence of their former dominance.
Tom said, by way of explanation.
the Erikson kids to keep the place up for you.I hope they did a good job cleaning.”Tom gave the bottom of the elaborate spoon carved and spindled Victorian door a kick,
and walked right in.Apparently Mrs. Milpot’s opinion of rural safety was
the general rule in these parts.He hadn’t used a key.A very deep, musty odor greeted them.
“Oh my,” said
“We can get the Erikson
kids to come back again with more Lysol.I’m afraid the mice think they
own the prairies.You never see them out in the fields.Dakota has house mice.They move in even with a large family
of humans, and as soon as the humans move out, they take over.”
Karen pushed the tattered
lace curtains aside and opened the front window.The blazing summer sun was beginning
to get low in the sky, some 15,000 miles to the west, or so it seemed.She imagined
seeing the Pacific Ocean on a clear day, or at least Glacier National Park,
She looked around her.The house décor was an odd mixture
of Victorian splendor that had seen better days, and 1970s avocado and orange.The
living room had thick shag carpet in a shade reminiscent of Halloween.The centerpiece
of the furnishings was a curved Victorian “davenport” with roses carved into its arms and back, and clawed feet.It was attended by a 1950s Art Deco metal floor lamp arching over its back.A fainting couch with carvings to match the davenport stood against one of the pillars guarding the archway
to the large dining area.Karen wasn’t sure if she felt love or pity for
her new home—perhaps it was a heavy dose of both.
“Oh my.”She heard it escape her lips before
she could stop it.The fainting couch might come in handy if the “eau de
mouse” got any heavier with the fall of dusk.Images of the period rooms
in the Chicago Museum of Art filled her mind, and she imagined some mad curator diabolically mixing them all together to produce
her new surroundings.
Thinking of her escort, she thought she’d better say something halfway intelligent about now.“I see what you mean about the area and antiques.Period
décor from two centuries, no less.Tom?”Karen hadn’t noticed he had gone back out.And gee, he missed her
best line all day.
He re-entered with all three suitcases.“Where would you like these?”
“Anywhere, I’ll reorganize when we get back from the museum.I
assume they still want to meet me today.”
“Oh, ah, no ma’am.Since you’re totally off schedule,
they decided to just have you settle in today.Get used to your new setting.Unpack.I’ll be ‘round to
pick you up in the morning.”
Karen had to suppress the desperate sense of, “don’t leave me here!”She smiled instead.“Well I’m already most of a whole day
late, I just thought . . .”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.I’ll
see you in the morning.”
“But what will I eat?” she hadn’t had anything but the “breakfast entree” pizza all day.
“The kids went shopping for some basic supplies yesterday morning.You should find them in the kitchen, if the mice haven’t got to ‘em.”He closed the door behind himself and shouted a, “pleasant evenin’,” over his shoulder.
This was not what Karen had expected to be doing on her first night in Cropper.Actually, she had expected her first night in Cropper to have been spent in Cropper, not in “The Little House on the Prairie.”She
stood thinking in a daze, as she heard Tom slide her cardboard boxes onto the little wooden porch.
She wondered if she should find some sort of mouse-ready weapon before entering the kitchen.Then she wondered if she should beg Tom to take her out of there, at least to get some cleaning supplies.If not permanently.
No, she wasn’t going to be caught begging on her first evening anywhere!She would look for food, and then pray to God that they had left her some Lysol, and a clawed hammer to
rip out that reeking carpet!With luck, the exit of the rug would cut the mouse
smell in half.
Out in the yard, the noise of Tom’s truck bumping over “buffalo grass” came to her.Karen looked around the room one more time and boldly stalked off unarmed to find the kitchen.