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Ninety Nine Below

O prairie mother, I am one of your boys.
I have loved the prairie as a man with a heart
Shot full of pain over love

— Carl Sandburg —

It's December
Thirty below
And I've been deceived

Back from Oklahoma City and the Finals rodeo
My foreman tells me the drills are lost
So I let him go

Somewhere just over the line
In Montana
My drillers are drunk and stoned
Cuntstruck
Crazy from the cold and endless work
(I empathize, Amoco gives a shit)

Somewhere out in Elk Basin
The cold and wind and snow
Is peeling another layer off the sandstone cliffs
Which shelter the petroglyphs and skeleton tepee

Somewhere out in the snow and wind
At the bottom of a BLM cliff
A permit nightmare waits –
A thousand pounds of frozen dynamite
Abandoned
In a wrecked truck
(Fuck!)

"Go find out what's goin' on"
My boss says from Denver
His voice
Attenuated
Frosty as the air outside

That voice
Dangling my job over my head

Wallet
Watch
That should do it

Breathing spicules of frost
I strike out for the hill and its Cat road
A mile away

Damn!

The hill is steep
Blue ice in patches
Gouged with Cat cleats in others
Spun full of ruts and ridges
Hard as iron
Steep
Cold
Rest
Steep
Cold

Rest

God...
Wanting to hold my breath
Panting real hard
Nosehair frozen
Tears freezing
Lungs burn
Eyes water
Lips burn
...damn!

Above me
At the crest of the hill
The wind shrieks and wails
Sings
As if the earth itself
Is widowed

Just downhill and out of the blast
I rest
Gather my strength for that wind
Start up
Slip
Dig in
Slip
Dig in
Dig in

Down
Into a deep gully
Round with wan sunny rock

Junipers
Emerald where lit by the sun
Black as tar in the flat winter shade
Shake and swoosh in the wind

Under skeletal leafless brush
A dead cow
Rib bones erect
Blasted to slats and rufous plush

And I find the seismic line

A pinflag
Hidden in the sage out of the wind
Shotpoint 4-413
Eight miles up the line

I've found my drills
If the windridden men
Have tried at all
If the paperwork isn't a lie

Staggering in the blast
Kickstepping
Up
Following pinflags worn to resonant wire

And at the top of the steep
Scorched lung
Ridge
Sits one drill

Sidehilled
Slipped out of a track
Next to a cutting pile hard
As the back of God's own head

The other drill sits on a flat nearby
Mast down
Glass frosted thick
Defeated as the men who worked it

Now I know what has gone on

I look around

Rooted to the ground
Waiting out the wind
Lying under robes brimfull of bored children
Content to wait

What do I know?
This is my life and I am being driven
I know the crying of the driver

A twinkle on the ground

I stoop and pick up a rock
That has reached out
Over the keening
Flashing the sun to catch my eye
To comfort me

I hold it to the light

Once it was wood
Highland hardwood

Now a stone
With a vein of crystal running up its heart

Like Damocles' sword

Driving out the highway
Cody to Belfry, Montana
Mares' tails of icy snow
Splatter
Click
Against the side of the truck

Black ice creeps from the shoulder
Waiting for dark
To run across the road

I four-wheel off the highway
East
Into the dun hills
Hills like elephants
But this is no Africa
This is the west
The mountain prairie
The home of a hundred below

I park in a gully out of the wind
Open the door to finish dressing
God!
Put on my facemask
Expedition parka
Over my sweater
Thermal top
Wool shirt
T shirt
Carhart pants
Thermal bottoms
Daypack full of survival gear
Elkskin mitts over wool finger gloves
Sorels
Snowshoes
Sun spectacles
Testicles

And stagger into the blast
Turn away from it
Sidle a while
Lean west into it
Stagger again
Deafened
Parka pressed against my ear
Muffling the low notes
Letting the high notes through the nylon
And silk

I can't think

I walk short of the cliff and see my truck
Small in the distance
Far below
Hiding from the wind

I orient myself

Line number four crosses that ridge
Then the valley
Skirts that fence and comes up here
The other side of that knob

Good

I put my head down
Walk north
On snow crusted hard as cinder
Feeling it not hearing

Holes have been eaten in the snow
Etched down to rock
Down to gravelly patches sprigged
With stunted sage

Suddenly
A linebacker gust
Knocks me off my feet
Cracking my elbow on the iron ground

Shit!

Back on my feet
I quarter down the hill
Hurrying now

Beneath the bluff I slide

At swirls of racing crystal snow
Abrading
Sanding
Buffing
Making their shrieking manic ways to nothingness
Jumping off the ridgetops
Disappearing into the cloudless frosty blue sky

Will the truck start?

I hustle to a small valley
Deep in snow
Put on my snowshoes
Slog a mile toward bare ground

Through my thick clothes the wind
Prickles
The flesh of my back
Damn!

I tie the shoes to my pack
Hurry across abraded rocks and gravel
To the beckoning ridgeline
Stop

My blurred vision has picked up something
I step back
Circle
A tepee ring

And another

Another with drill tracks arced through it
Damn!

But I am struck as I stand under that wan sun
And look across two hundred years
Into a tepee
Erect
Integrated
Thrumming
With people inside
Who know the wind like their mother's breath
Sweet
Ripe with the power of this life

Rock shatterers
Rock fluters

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Jon Horton

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