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Courting Calamity

"That girl just stood amongst it all like a conqueror—her feet apart, her rifle held at the ready, and the Green Man’s weird alien horse a sentinel at her back, still as a stone."

Chapter 3: Fort Casper, WYOMING

In Gram’s stories, Wyoming was this rough and raw place, big and empty except for the occasional posse or tribe or spaceship filling out the map like the sea monsters and dragons in Treasure Island or Game of Thrones. But a day into the state, we didn’t find any sea monsters or spaceships. We found a Starbucks. Just a few blocks from the state house and Boone’s bar as we headed out of town. It was a spot of ordinary in an otherwise very foreign place—the ice, the cold, the people, the landscape. The mochas and the trucks were about all that was familiar.

The highway heading north out of Cheyenne climbed higher onto the plateau with just two black tracks for tires cut through the ice on either side of the road. And there were these giant signs every few miles to alert us if wind conditions threatened to throw us off the road. Even the wind was bigger here! At least there were even larger sections of fencing—ten or twenty feet tall and each a quarter-mile long—looming over the road, drifts piled up behind them ready to catch us if the wind picked us up.

But within half an hour or so heading north, ice on the highway cleared and the snow fell away and brown earth and grasses peeked up around us on all sides. It was gorgeous! Mountains and mesas cut up the landscape and this one peak stood high above the rest off to the northwest. I was driving, so Scott messed with his phone to figure how far off it was—fifty miles, when we first saw it. Clear as if it was right next to the road.

I told Scott that, according to Gram’s stories and the journal she left me, somewhere in these hills was a sod hut where Calamity Jane and her Green Man hid out before they turned south toward Cheyenne. It probably wasn’t anything more than a pile of dirt after more than a century and a half, and there weren’t any clues in that journal as to where it might be anyway, but it warmed my heart to think I’d come so far to be so close to where those two kept together so long ago.

Scott tried looking up sod huts on his phone but he didn’t have any signal on that stretch—it came and it went in the wild. I told him not to worry about it. But I also told him that there were some sweet moments in that hut—like back at Cheyenne, really, that were some of my favorite parts of Jane’s adventure. He just rolled his eyes and said something about me being “such a girl.” So I told him, too, the story of the gunfight they had somewhere out on that landscape. How furious and close to death it’d all been. And about the terrible things Jane and her Green Man had done to survive. That seemed to get his attention. That and this one moment where I swear he almost held my hand.

It was right around then, when we were just twenty miles or so from that mountain, that we pulled onto the shoulder so Scott could get a few pictures. I wrapped myself up in my cape and lay across the hood of the car, the sun warming me up a little in that cold winter air. He scrambled across the road, cursing because he couldn’t get his camera to work with his gloves on. The sky was so bright it hurt to look at. But I tried to imagine what Jane might’ve seen when she looked up at this same sky. This same clear blue and indigo sky—big as shit—and not another human being for miles and miles in every direction. And no noise except Scott cursing from the far side of the road.

Right then, a big rig rocketed by and just about sucked me right off the hood of that old piece of shit car. Scared the crap right out me. But in a second I was laughing so hard at that Scott ran over to make sure I was ok. No, this wasn’t the same Wild West Jane and her Green Man rode through. Not at all. But she was here, a long time ago. And I was here now. I squeezed myself tight inside my cape and took a long breath of absolutely frigid air. I don’t know if I’d ever been happier.

Around every bend on that highway there was some new view that was unlike anything from the piece of town we grew up in. Scott kept saying it reminded him of Hoth, some place from Star Wars. I kept thinking of the moon. Vast and treeless and so dusted in snow there was hardly any color to be seen, even where the dirt and rock showed through. And there were hardly any other cars on the road, either, except the occasional big rig and this one white pickup I kept spotting in the rearview.

I kept track of our pace by ticking off the towns between Cheyenne and Casper. And sometimes it was easy to miss them. Most weren’t more than handful of houses and a gas station clinging to side of a hill or in the snowy shadow of a mesa or a cliff. But I realized I was smiling this big dumb grin as we got closer to Casper. Bigger still as we slid through town to the Fort Casper historical site at a horseshoe bend in the river.

Scott dropped me off and went back for gas, leaving me totally alone in a snow-covered parking lot. The Museum was closed for the holiday so I tromped around the lot for a while, not quite sure what to so. It was unspeakably quiet, there—maybe the snow was sucking up all the sound. But there was a huge bronze statue of an Indian brave battling a buffalo and a wagon wheel atop some kind of Mormon monument—signs of two cultures I’ve never heard called out in those honky-tonks back home. I took a few pictures with my phone, not quite sure what to do.

But all the while I circled that lot, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Fort Casper—or what was left of it. It was just over a low fence, standing much as it must’ve a hundred and sixty years ago when Jane led her war party of Sioux and Comanche Indians down on a garrison of what she called Galvanized Yankees and their gray alien warlord. And between that wooden stockade and me there was probably a hundred feet of perfectly unblemished snow. Snow that would show every footstep.

It didn’t look at all how I imagined it. In Gram’s stories, the stockades were a hundred feet high and sprawling like castle walls. Or maybe that was all on account of my having been twelve when she first told me. From the parking lot, the walls were maybe low enough you could touch their tips with an up-stretched hand. And most were just the backsides of log-cabin shacks.

I did a few turns around the parking lot not knowing quite what to do. This didn’t seem right. This wasn’t the fort Jane attacked. And I felt stupid for coming all this way and standing alone in a freezing parking lot. I took out my phone to see where Scott was but there wasn’t any signal. What would he do, anyway? Wouldn’t he just agree this was all a waste and drive me away?

I walked up to the fence and looked more at that fort. There were some bare teepee poles not far off and fort buildings and stockade just behind. I could see what looked like a Navy mast rising over the building, flags snapping against it in the wind. And snow whipping around everywhere in little tornadoes.

But through a gap in between some of the buildings, I could make out the end of a bridge.

Seeing the bridge quieted the flutter of nerves in my stomach. The teepees and the fort and the monuments and all that reconstructed noise… those were just backup band to that bridge. That bridge was once the center of a gigantic battle on the Platte. A battle where my fifteen-year-old namesake Calamity Jane faced off in single combat with a gray-skinned monster. How often had Gram told me that story? How often had I drifted off to sleep imagining myself standing on that bridge, her rifle in my hand and her curses on my lips. I could conquer anything in those dreams. I could recover any loss. And here I was, in sight of the real bridge and hesitating on account of some mismatched expectations?

Fuck it. If anything here was left over from Jane and her battle it must be that bridge. So I hopped the fence and sank to my knees in the powder. The snow was dry in a way I’d never felt snow before. Certainly not like that wet slush we get down South. But either way, it didn’t feel all that cold. I just clutched that metal disc—still warm despite the freezing weather—and stomped forward through that perfect snow.

I tromped through the teepee poles, letting my hands drift over the smooth wood and imagining I was Jane among the Lakota, painting my face with the braves. I walked through the open fort, dodging tiny cyclones of dusty snow and looking for the scars alien weapons should’ve left on the old wood. Reverently, I approached the end of the bridge, hauling myself up through the snow and onto its buried planks.

I stood there, at the fort end of the bridge and hugged myself tight under my cape. When Jane was here, in the 1860s, this bridge extended all the way across the North Platte. And through the bare trees I could just make out the frozen bend and the far bank. But at some point between then and now, it’d been cut short and only fifty feet of the bridge remained. But standing right there in the middle of that remnant, I closed my eyes and thought about Gram’s stories. I clutched that disc, too. And it was like I was back there, standing where that gray alien once stood in front of his fort and his soldiers. And across from me, down a long stretch of boards almost to the other side of the river, stood this little girl. A whirlwind of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Indians rode behind her on the far bank. Overhead, between us and the furious summer sun that stung my cold cheeks, a thunder of mortar and artillery and sci-fi weaponry filled the sky, bombarding both the tribes in front of me and the garrison behind. And that girl just stood amongst it all like a conqueror—her feet apart, her rifle held at the ready, and the Green Man’s weird alien horse a sentinel at her back, still as a stone.

My heart was racing. This was what I was looking for. This! And then all that sound fell away. The crash of the weapons and the whoops of the warriors quieted and all I could hear was just the small breathing of that young girl. Her breath shook. Her fingers flexed as they squeezed the stock and barrel of her rifle a little too tightly. And when the wind stirred the hair around her face, there was a flush across her neck. But her eyes were fixed. They were fixed on me. As fixed as I’d ever seen anyone look on anyone or anything. Her lips were moving, too. She was screaming—and from the look on her face, nothing nice—but I couldn’t hear her.  

She was right there.

Wasn’t she?

A shadow passed over me and I looked up to see a Gray Man fly over my head, his duster billowing behind him as he flew. I saw Jane raise her rifle.

I tried to call out but my voice was gone.

Scott called out to me from across the grounds and in an instant I was back in that winter cold, back in that sanctified fort. I looked about in a panic, kicking snow every which way, but Jane was gone. That gray alien was gone. The soldiers and the Indians and all the battle were replaced by snow, barren trees where the bridge once was, and a jumble of mobile homes just beyond the quiet fort.

Scott stood there shivering, making some joke about the gas station’s name—the Kum and Go—and looking around like he didn’t know what any of this was. I closed my eyes, again, but there just a red glow under my eyelids, now.

He helped me down off the bridge and I looked around at the site with fresh eyes. Like I hadn’t just walked through it from the parking lot five minutes ago. The fort was completely different than I’d seen it on that bridge. And there wasn’t any sign of battle on the timbers, neither. The stockades stood unblemished. The building, all unbroken. Except for the name of the fort itself, there wasn’t any signal the battle on the Platte took place at all. And there certainly wasn’t any marker suggesting that some teenage girl had led it.

But I looked back toward that bridge. I’d seen her there. I know I had. I’d seen something that was, not just this pale imitation. Here in the snow, I was a tourist. But up on that bridge, I’d been a witness. Maybe because of that disc in my hand. Maybe because I knew the stories so well. But it was just like Gram told me. Just like Jane told that reporter a hundred years ago. I saw her face down the devil all by herself.

I was on the right track. I knew it! All proof of her was gone from Cheyenne and Casper but I was on her trail. On the Green Man’s trail, too.

I screamed and stamped my feet in the snow. We’d planned to stay the afternoon in Casper but forget that. I wanted to push on toward Independence Rock and the Devil’s Gate and the ghost town of Piedmont. Right now!

I started to drag Scott back toward the car but he took my arm to stop me. I thought this might be a follow up to that almost-holding-my-hand moment we had on the drive up, but the look on his face sure didn’t match that expectation. I followed his look and saw a white pickup truck stopped behind our Honda, idling noisily in the otherwise utterly quiet air. Its windows were tinted so we couldn’t see anyone inside.

I was about to ask Scott what we should do if that truck was security or something when a smaller truck pulled into the lot behind it. The white pickup idled forward and away as the smaller truck pulled in next to our clunker, a little blue-haired woman leaning out the window and yelling for us to get away from the fort. Turns out the lady who ran the museum lived in one of those trailers close by. But all while she was calling for us, waving her arms like some inflatable outside of a car dealership, that bigger white pickup just idled around the parking lot, finally gunning it away.