The first time I became aware of Jeanette was at the Black Sands Art Show, part of Anaconda’s annual Summerfest. Local painters, photographers, ceramicists, craftspeople, and merchants had set up awnings, tables, and booths throughout Washoe Park, with walkways looping and meandering among the stalls and temporary galleries. In one corner, local restaurants, pitmasters, and service groups like the Sons of Norway and Daughters of the Mines had stands and mini-restaurants with church or picnic tables and the odd umbrella to cast a bit of shadow, and in another, the I-have-a-cool-old-car-and-you-don’t club had classics in a row, hoods up, their owners, primarily middle-aged men with guts and grins, glad to talk with whomever came along. Water hoses and extension cords crisscrossed the paths, and most were covered and secured by rubber cord guards, and folks milled about, on the whole happily and lazily, checking out the wares and trying to decide between noodle bowls, empanadas, barbeque ribs, elephant ears from the Episcopals, or pork chop sandwiches from the Baptists. The Anaconda Volunteer Fire Department had a display on summer fire hazards in the urban-rural interface, and leaflets on defensible space and the home ignition zone.
One company, a hot tub and ceiling fan seller from Missoula or Bozeman, was nestled among the arts and crafts booths and had an industrial hose and extension cord running diagonally across a walkway to supply water and power to their demo models, and although they were covered, the guards didn’t sit particularly flat on the trampled grass. I was standing a few yards behind one of my officers, who was chatting with a trooper from the MHP, and was about to tell him to go over to the booth and ask them to nail or stake down the rubber cover strip when a woman, perhaps in her thirties, turned and stepped away from the man she was with. The man had evidently wanted to take her picture, backdropped by black and white photographs large enough for a livingroom wall of Yellowstone bison in winter, their hides crusted with snow and steam from a hotspring rising in the background. Just as the woman stepped back, she caught her heel on the guard and, naturally, tumbled at once onto her bottom and then onto her back. She made an audible thud and gasp as she landed hard on the dry, compact ground, and as her momentum carried her onto her back, her legs went up into the air and her dress, a loose summer cotton, billowed out, a perfect mushroom cap, and then crumpled around her waist.
By then, I was only a step from my officer and the trooper.
“‘Whoa’ is right,” said the other. “Did you see that?”
“I did,” the trooper jibed, “and, I tell you, from now on, I’m flying with her.”
“If the plane gets into trouble, you could use those underwear as a parachute.”
I put a hand on each of their shoulders and gave them a shove:
“Rather than gawking, how about helping?”
They both looked sheepish, but before they could cross the few yards to assist, the man, who could not have been more than 5’3” or 5’4” and who was as spare as a fencepost, had stooped over and gently taken her arm and placed it around his neck. In a single motion and seemingly without effort, he lifted her from the ground and set her on her feet. She cried out as her ankles took the weight and all but crumpled again.
Even from a distance I could see that her left ankle had begun to swell, and I pushed past the two lunkheads and asked the couple if I could help. The woman, in tears, gratefully acknowledged my offer and I slipped her other arm around my shoulders and she hopped as we supporter her to a nearby picnic table. After a bit of maneuvering, her ponytail at one point slapping me across the face, she dropped onto the bench and leaned back against the top. The bench sagged with her considerable weight, and creaked as she shifted this way and that trying to get comfortable. She held onto my hand the entire time, thanking me over and over again between gasps for air. Her dress has fallen, as the man had lifted her, back into position, but as she sat, she kept tugging on the hemline to pull it down.
The man, his wispy, thinning black hair slicked back from his widow’s peak and temples in the style more of the 1950s than the 2000s, his skin dark and tanned and deeply lined, his face handsome in an awkward, uneven way, was perhaps likewise trying to thank me, and he had his right hand out as if to shake mine, but I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. He spoke just above a whisper, and if he was speaking English, French, or Spanish, or all three at once, I couldn’t pick out any words. I reached out, his rough hand, stones wrapped in leather, dwarfed in mine, and he pumped my arm like he was trying to get water from deep in the ground.
I told him that I was glad to help, that my name was Helen Ross, and that I was chief of the city-county police. Whether he understood me, I cannot say, but he kept nodding and pumping. I disentangled my hand and turned to the woman to introduce myself to her.
At last letting go of the hem, she began patting at the material covering her thighs and waist. “Oh, that was embarrassing.”
She was crying softly now, and I activated my shoulder mic and called for a couple of paramedics to join us—discreetly, no stretcher, no scuttling through the crowds—and to bring some ice packs, wraps, tape, painkillers, a few bottles of water, and a pair of crutches.
As we waited for the paramedics, I learned that her name was Jeanette and that her husband’s name was Jean-Baptiste, and a couple of weeks later I stopped at the Phillips to gas up my cruiser and stepped into the shop to see Gus about finding a time to get an oil change and alignment for my Tundra. Jacob and Gus had been great friends and hunting partners, and when Jacob died and Ellen went away to college and never looked back, it somehow came about that I became Gus’ hunting buddy. Mary, Gus’ wife, didn’t mind—Gus was like a brother to me—and we got out a few times a year. While we were talking about elk hunting in the fall, Jean-Baptiste, wearing overalls and covered in grease, came up to me and took my hand and began pumping it and bobbing his head and saying something. When I asked how Jeanette was doing, was her ankle doing any better, his eyes glistened and he shrugged his shoulders and held his hands palm up, his elbows tucked against his ribs, and I smiled and was none the wiser: maybe she was in a cast, or maybe she was jogging every day. He jounced my hand once more, and just as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared beneath an Outback on a lift.
When I turned back to Gus, he was laughing:
“Ain’t he the damnedest guy you ever met?”
“I can’t understand a word he says. Can you?”
“Hardly, but he can fix anything: car, motorcycle, lawnmower. I just wish I could get him to work fulltime for me.”
I told Gus about the accident at Summerfest. He had never met Jeanette but had perhaps heard about her tumble? “He was telling me something about someone who fell, but he talks so damn fast in that whisper of his, I mostly just nod. I think he told me, one time, that someone shot him in the throat.”
At that bit of news, I pointed towards Gus’ small office in one corner of the garage and told him he was buying me a coffee:
“I’d like to know that story. Call it professional curiosity.”
Jeanette and Jean-Baptiste, it seemed, were real life Cajuns—that much I had deduced—straight from small town Louisiana, yet what they were doing in Montana, or how long they had been here, or how long they planned to stay, Gus didn’t know.
“He wandered in a month or two ago, and at first I thought his old Ranger needed repairs, but somehow he made me to understand that he was looking for work. I didn’t really need someone, but I offered him a couple of days a week and he talked me down to one. Or, at least he’s been showing up on Mondays. I keep trying to give him more days, but he prefers to work for himself, as a landscaper and handyman.”
The couple, according to Gus, had lived in St. Benedict, a dot on the map north of a stream bearing the wonderful name of Venchy Branch and across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Jean-Baptiste had been a part-time groundsman and maintenance worker for an abbey on the south side of the creek, and otherwise did whatever odd jobs he wanted, including helping his old ones with their nearby farm. In the wake of Katrina, skilled and unskilled labor had been in high demand and Jean-Baptiste and some his brothers and buddies, after doing their part to get St. Benedict back on its feet, had gone into the city to do what they could and to earn some extra money. They worked demolition in ruined neighborhoods, and helped to clear downed trees and upended or flooded-out cars and houses in the worst-hit neighborhoods. They also served on repair crews tending to salvageable homes and commercial buildings, often working one job during the day and another at night.
One night, while tearing out moldy, rotten drywall in the offices of an electrical supply company on the New Orleans side of the 17th Street Canal, several police, or at least individuals in police uniforms, had broken into the attached warehouse in order to steal all the copper, widgets, tools, and machines they could get their hands on. Jean-Baptiste and his brothers and buddies wisely ignored the cops and kept about their jobs, but the NOPD officers decided to ensure their silence with a modest display of firepower.
“Stop right there: a crew, maybe cops, is robbing a warehouse, and you decide to keep tearing out ruined drywall and stinky carpet in the front end? No way.”
“Different time, different place. The world had gone sideways. Or maybe the cops told them they were moving the supplies to a safer place.”
“You’re just making this up.”
“You want me to tell you what I know, or not?”
As the cops were leaving with their loot, having filled a 26-foot Ryder with everything from fittings to fans to a Daewoo standup forklift, they went into the office space, drew their weapons, and shot at the unarmed workers, men who were very deliberately looking the other way.
The might-be cops had opened fire with pistols and shotguns, not to kill, perhaps, but to impress upon the men the necessity of minding their own business. They may not have intended to kill, but they murdered two men, anyway, including one of Jean-Baptiste’s brothers, and Jean-Baptiste had been hit in the windpipe with the shot that had blown through and past his brother’s face and skull.
It was when they called for an ambulance that things really got interesting.
Jeanette, it turns out, was there that night—after the hurricane, she refused to stay alone while Jean-Baptiste went away to work—and after her husband had crumpled to the floor, she tried to stop the gush of blood, pressing her hand over the holes blasted into his neck. In between tearing her jean jacket into make-shift bandages and plucking a shard of his brother’s cranium from his Jean-Baptiste’s chin, she used some of the broken plaster to elevate his feet in order to fend off shock for as long as she could. In the meantime, the brothers and buddies had rushed outside in order to grab whatever weapons, mostly hunting rifles and skinning knives, they had in their rigs. When the ambulance finally arrived, the paramedics refused to enter the building until the cops or National Guard showed up and secured the scene, which, given the widespread strife, dislocation, and violence of the time, could have been whenever, and the men ordered them in at gunpoint. As the first cops, responding to 911 reports of shots fired and paramedics held against their will, pulled into the parking lot and began to climb from their squad cars, Leroy, the next oldest brother after Jean-Baptiste, pumped a shell into the chamber of a 12 gauge:
“No damn way. No damn cops.”
To make his point, he fired into the grill of the nearest prowler.
At that moment, as even more police screeched into the parking lot, including some who may have been involved in the robbery, events seemed ready to spin out of hand, with the cops yelling for the workers to drop their weapons and Jean-Baptiste’s crew replying with obscenities and threatening, with their deer knives, to skin them right down to their souls.
While all of this was going on, Jeanette picked her little husband off the floor, as if he were a bride about to be carried across the threshold, and directed the two paramedics toward a side door, forcing them to lead the way. When they refused to open the door, in fear of getting shot, she turned a little sideways and forced her left arm away from her torso, using the inert Jean-Baptiste’s feet to kick at them as forcibly as possible, which couldn’t have been much.
I see the moment clearly: his head lolling over the crook of her cradled left arm, neck exposed, the crude bandages soaked and heavy and slipping away, exposing a dozen, two dozen killing gashes and punctures, his small, slight frame a sagging V between her trembling, struggling arms, his legs from the knees dangling from her elbow. For all she knew, he was dying, perhaps already dead, and she had to use him as a sort of feeble battering ram against the paramedics.
“You’re crazy. We open that door and we’re dead.”
Somehow, she made them comply, made them open the door and lead the way around the corner of building and into the middle of the fray. Somehow, they scuttled into the parking lot, open and exposed between two groups of angry, weary-yet-adrenalized, well-armed and impatient antagonists, without getting shot. Once they reached the ambulance, one of the paramedics jumped inside and with the last of her strength, and help from the other, Jeanette half lifted, half pushed Jean-Baptiste onto the gurney. Spent, both physically and emotionally, she staggered against the fender and collapsed.
“At the hospital, the cops arrested Jeanette and handcuffed Jean-Baptiste to his bed and charged him with robbery and felony murder for the deaths of his brother and friend.”
“Ok, that’s the first thing you’ve said that I can believe. The rest of your story is horse shit.”
After poking holes in Gus’ story for a while and making a mental note to put a call into the NOPD, I set my empty coffee cup on his desk and headed through the garage and back toward my cruiser. As I passed Jean-Baptiste with the Subaru still on the lift, he was looking up at the underside of the engine, holding a trouble light in his right hand and moving it and his head this way and that to get a better view of whatever he was working on. Sure enough, with his chin elevated and a bright light only inches from his face casting precise, almost surgical shadows, I could see a dozen or more scars and dents sprent across the front and side of his neck, as if a herculean, monstrous child had jabbed him with tiny, malicious, sharp fingers.
He also had a pinkish scar on one side of his chin.
Some days later, while I was supervising a speed trap just east of town on Highway 1—and was therefore bored out of my mind and not thinking about anything in particular except for needing to pee—it occurred to me that I had perhaps seen Jeanette and Jean-Baptiste before the fall at the fair. Since, evidently, we want to wait until the sun can push tourists into the parched earth like a giant, asphyxiating hand, and since, apparently, we like to give the fire season a chance to really get going and perhaps turn the sky as brown and raspy as the inside of a smoker’s lungs, Anaconda Summerfest takes place on the first weekend in August. In early April, I had been in Missoula for a meeting of Western Montana Chiefs of Police, and during a lunch break had wandered along the Clark Fork, across a footbridge, and onto campus. I drifted by a dog park and football practice field and eventually became tangled up with a small crowd heading into a fieldhouse. In the time-honored way of cops, I gained admittance by flashing my badge. By chance, I had stumbled into a powwow, and the floor of the arena, no doubt usually a basketball court, was full of fancy and grass dancers in full regalia, the air vibrating with drums and the eerie, otherworldly chants of the drummers. The lower stands around the court were full, and I climbed into the second tier to watch the bright, energetic movements of a hundred or more performers.
I was enjoying the dancers so much that, save for the entrenched habit of scanning the faces and body language of those around me, I might not have noticed a couple who emerged from the concourse through one of the many tunnels leading to the stands. The man, who may have been Jean-Baptiste, looked more or less as he did on that day in Anaconda when I first became aware of them, but the woman, who might have been Jeanette, looked nothing like the disheveled, teary woman with the painfully swollen ankle whom I had helped to a picnic table.
A head taller than the man, she appeared ebullient, energetic, and her hair, a bright, brittle blonde, was cut short. Even from a distance, her eyes seemed to shine with bonhomie and something more than casual interest, and once they emerged from the concourse tunnel and she could see the dancers and hear the drumming and chanting, she was riveted. She all but ran to the railing on the landing above the first tier of seats and leaned over to get as clear a view as possible. She scanned this way and that, appearing to try and take in the entire spectacle at once.
She was entranced, almost giddy, but what struck me most as I thought about it, roasting in my 100-degree car and wondering why, at my age and rank, I still took turns in the field, was that she was painfully thin. So thin, in fact, that while she was clearly buoyant, she also had the look, perhaps, of someone recovering from a long illness. There were the remnants of dark half-moons beneath her eyes and her skin seemed, at least in the greenish, industrial lighting of the arena, inelastic, waterless, stretched a little too tautly over the bones of her arms, shoulders, and neck.
As I observed her and her seemingly undernourished partner, like any cop working in rural America, I thought, and perhaps even spoke, what immediately came to mind:
They were both so thin, and if the man appeared calm, the woman seemed fidgety and amped, as if she were willing herself not to scramble onto the floor and join the dancers. But if they were tweakers, unless one or both pulled a knife or gun or jumped from the landing onto the folks below, they weren’t my problem and no doubt the university cops had already spotted them. I watched the dancers for a while longer, and when the time came to head back for the afternoon meetings, I worked my way along the edge of the floor and towards a large tunnel that I guessed led to the foyer. As I turned the corner onto the downward sloping ramp, I almost ran into the man and woman.
Although the air was filled with rapid and dramatic singing and drumming, they were dancing, waltzing, slowly and closely to a music of their own, and the man moved effortlessly and seemed almost to carry the woman in his arms. He was smiling and murmuring something to her, and she was giggling and moving almost as gracefully, she towering over him, a kind of joy brushed over her sallow, desiccated skin and dark, almost bruised eyes, he looking up at her with such artless happiness and affection, and no doubt I paused for a moment to watch their dance just as I had watched the fancy dancers.
They were no concern of mine, so I stepped past them and weaved my way through the others in the passageway and returned to the dry, yet necessary mill of how best to police small towns and rural communities. By the time I reached the hotel, I suppose, I had all-but forgotten them until, unbidden, the image of the dancers came to mind while I broiled in my cruiser.
Could that really have been Janette and Jean-Baptiste?
A few weeks later, in coordination with the AVFD and a dozen state and federal agencies, and along with Park Rangers, the MHP, and every other sheriff, tribal police, and game warden in Montana, we were making efforts to update folks in our counties on the fire situation, the worst in a string of bad years. The fire west of Absarokee had reached nearly 300 square miles, and a string of several smaller yet uncontained fires hopscotched west from there, with the nearest to us just south and east of Bozeman. With out-of-control wildfires in Oregon and Idaho pouring even more smoke into Montana and an inversion choking the valley, the sky was brown and low and you couldn’t see the Pintlers from town. With dry lightning storms forecast for Deer Lodge and surrounding counties, we hoped that people had their photos, valuables, and animals ready to go should an evacuation order be issued, and we were trying to warn people, using every media possible, that their world could become catastrophic, even deadly, in a matter of moments.
As part of our overall strategy, and especially in an effort to alert the outliers who lived beyond the reach of newspapers, television, and the internet, we were posting notices on county roads and accesses to public lands about the increased risk of fires in the area. More, after hearing reports about a French couple buying a cabin on a few acres in one of the drainages west and south of town, and after putting in a call to the NOPD—the detective I spoke to, a guy named Robicheaux, said they were still investigating but the case had stalled: despite two dead bodies and an empty warehouse, all charges against Jean-Baptiste and his kith and kin had been dropped due to a lack of evidence; when I asked about the cops-as-robbers angle, Robicheaux, who sounded a bit hungover and gloomy, hesitated for a moment and then admitted that, very likely, it had been cops and that he knew who they were—I was curious to see if it was Jeanette and Jean-Baptiste who had bought the cabin, and I was curious to see how they were doing. I was also, frankly, a bit concerned that they might not wholly grasp what it meant to live on a remote property at high altitude in fire season. After work, I signed out one of the department’s 4X4s, grabbed a sheaf of the fire warnings and a staple gun, and headed west.
Once on the highway, I drove a few miles and, just past the junction with Lime Spur Road, turned south into the Barker Creek drainage. I followed the logging road as it meandered uphill and down in the general direction of the creek, and then kept on, heading more or less south on the east side of the stream until the road branched and I swung back to the east and north, climbing steadily up a steep foothill. Just short of the summit, I turned onto an even more poorly maintained logging road and followed it, first to the northeast and then to the southwest, through thick forest. The road was a rough mix of washouts, ruts, collapsed cuttings, and abrupt fallaways, and, one hand on the wheel and the other braced against the ceiling, I bounced along, following it as it circled a sheer and sweeping clearcut. Everywhere was long, dry grass and slash, prime bio-mass for a fast-spreading fire.
Down to a few miles an hour due to the road, and wondering if the straining, superheated V8 might spark the sward, I made slow progress until the road began to improve as it rose toward a tree-filled ravine. Not only was the road getting better, but the grass and saplings on either side had been cut back several yards. Rather than following the V of the ravine, the road meandered like an old stream among the ponderosa and doug fir, blocking any sight of what lay ahead. At last, I emerged into a small, mostly level clearing shaped like an elongated diamond. In the center stood a smallish, smart-looking one-and-a-half story log cabin with gables and a blue steel roof. The road, well-graveled and without potholes or ruts, circled in front of the cabin and matching detached garage, and parked in front of the garage was a small Ford Ranger with Louisiana plates. Beside the Ranger was an old VW bug convertible with its top down.
How did they get that thing over that road?
To the right of the house, in raised beds enclosed by chain-link, was a thriving vegetable garden, and behind the garden was a wall-less shed full to the ceiling of herringbone-stacked split logs, enough for both a fireplace and a woodstove for two long winters. Beyond the shed at the top of the clearing was a tidy stand of quaking aspen.
I tapped the horn and when no one appeared, I climbed out of the rig, a bit seasick from the hour and a half on washed-out washboard, and staggered over to the Ranger and looked through the back window of the canopy. Inside, in an orderly fashion, were two lawnmowers and landscaping gear as well as three plastic tubs of what looked to be everyday handyman tools. I continued to the front door and knocked.
A few more steps, and I peered in through the large front window. The floorplan was open, with an amiable living-room giving onto a dining area and kitchen with an island. On the dining room table, in a clear glass vase, was a single, apparently fresh cut rose. I walked around the house, but nobody appeared to be home. I returned to the 4X4 and, grabbing a fire warning flier and one of my cards, I wrote that if they had any concerns or wanted to discuss their options should they have to leave in a hurry, they could call me or speak with anyone at the police department or volunteer fire station.
Taking one last look around—save for a couple of shade trees, they, or the previous owners, had cut a more than substantial enough fire break around the house, and they had likewise thinned the trees nearest the structures—I climbed back into the truck and gritted my teeth: past seven, the sky old copper and lowering and the light in the clearing a peculiar, eyeball-wrenching aquamarine, I wouldn’t get back to town until nearly 10:00 or even 11:00 p.m., by which time I would be exhausted, battered from the drive, and cranky.
Still, Jeanette and Jean-Baptiste had a wonderful place, the very picture of the Montana dream.
As I drove, I remember, I thought about fires, and about how damn far from anywhere or anyone Jeanette and Jean-Baptiste had landed. I had read somewhere that Katrina had generated winds up to 175 mph, a force I cannot even imagine, and it had evidently hit the couple so hard that they had been borne aloft, twisting and tumbling amid the wreckage and ruined lives, only to land, to wash ashore, more than 6000 feet up the side of a mountain in western Montana. Now that’s a hell of a storm, one that can uproot you from family, from all you know, from your history, and drop you as close to the middle of nowhere as you could imagine.
I have never been trapped by a fire, but I have worked in the heart of them, directing evacuations and driving pell-mell down roads choked with black smoke yet raging with cinders and falling, blazing branches, fiery debris pelting windscreen and windows, homes on either side roaring, bursting with fire, propane tanks fire-balling, the air shuddering and quivering, the vehicle thrown this way and that from the concussions or fire-generated winds, the whole time trying to see the road, to stay on the road. Fires, as I suppose most folks in the West know, make their own weather, and I once saw a tornado of flame rise above a forest, vaporing trees in what seemed like moments. That sense of panic: this is more than I can handle.
By the time I reached town, dropped off the 4X4, and dropped onto my own couch, whiskey in a tumbler with two cubes, I was, as predicted, cranky.
The fire season, as all fire seasons do, passed when the first real snows came in November and doused the flames. And from early November, it snowed steadily and heavily at elevation, and anybody living above 5000 or 6000 feet either had to snowbird it someplace more livable or hunker down for the winter, pretty well stocked for food and supplies. Expert snowmobilers can get around in the mountains all winter, but they have to deal with snow so deep it can bury a machine that slows down too much, or they can disappear in avalanches, their bodies unrecoverable until, in some cases, early summer.
Although I never saw Jeanette again, and perhaps had only seen her that one time when she fell so painfully, so mortifyingly at the fair, and although I never saw Jean-Baptiste again after that time at Gus’ garage, I was able to piece together, from different folks and reports, that their Montana adventure did not end that summer, or even that long, cold, snowy winter. Rather, in the late spring, they moved back to Louisiana to be with their families and friends.
Yet that winter, long after anybody could travel easily, or even at all, in the mountains, Jean-Baptiste caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He probably caught the cold at the hospital in January, and had been battling it for a few weeks only to become sicker and sicker. Since they were so far away from town, and since, perhaps, Jean-Baptiste was like most guys and preferred to suffer rather than to get some help, his lungs began to fill with fluids, and he developed a roaring temperature and endless cough, and after a while of that, burning up, he slipped into semi-consciousness.
I like to think that he was very apologetic about it all. Hoarse from coughing, and struggling to breathe, he no doubt asked Jeanette not to worry about him, explained that it would pass, that he would get better soon, that he was sorry that he was not able to help more around the house and yard, not able to clear a path to the woodshed or to the garage, not able to go into town should they need anything.
Of course, had I been there, I would not have understood a word he was saying. Already a whisperer in other languages, I wonder what he sounded like while he was slowly drowning and crackling for air?
One day, she must have told him:
“That’s it, I’m going for help, to find someone to help me get you into town. You need to see a doctor.”
Whether, by that point, he could argue or even respond at all, I cannot say, but Jeanette made about the only decision she could. She bundled up, went out to the garage, hit the automatic door-opener, and pulled the starting cord on the ancient snowmobile. It started immediately, since Jean-Baptiste took such care of his machines and tools, and grabbing a shovel, she let the sled idle while she dug and compacted a long ramp to the top of the deep, heavy snow. Once satisfied that the ramp was gradual enough to get up to speed before hitting the powder and becoming bogged down, she bungeed the shovel to the back of the sled and went back into the house in order to swaddle the baby, Lisa-Marie, in a number of layers. She then stuffed the bundle of baby between her breasts inside her coveralls.
A toque beneath her hood and goggles to protect her eyes, she climbed onto the snowmobile, a twenty-five year old Arctic Cat that now sits behind Gus’s shop, for sale, a much better machine than people realize, revved the engine, popped the clutch, and shot up the ramp.
I like to think she caught a bit of air.
She proceeded carefully and steadily, erring on the side of giving it too much gas rather than not enough. Nevertheless, she was an inexperienced snowmobiler and, after several miles, yet well short of the highway, she submarined into a snowbank and interred the Cat. She buried the sled, but not, after a long and exhausting struggle, its riders. Using the shovel, she cleared away enough snow to be able to stand on the snowmobile’s seat and survey the terrain.
Talking happily the entire time to Lisa-Marie, Jeanette took her bearings, jumped from the seat into the snow and immediately sank past her hips. Soaked from her labors, she unzipped the coveralls to her waist, moved the bundle to one side to keep the baby safe and, rotating at the hips and swinging her arms, began to plow through the snow and along, she hoped, the road. Hours later, and quite a bit off course, she stumbled on a house at the north end of Nelson Gulch. They knew someone with a snowcat and would take them directly to his place.
The baby, I discovered, had been born, following the plan and the natural course of things, at the Community Hospital in Anaconda, and so was, by birth and by dint of experience, a true Montanan. Jean-Baptiste recovered, evidently none the worse for the wear, and once spring rolled around they sold the cabin and acreage and moved back into their old house, which had not sold in that time, in St. Benedict. That next winter, a bit out of the blue, they sent me a Christmas card and pictures of Lisa-Marie, and I have not heard from or about them since.