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Borderlines: Sketches from the Empty Quarter: Companions on the Prairie: Memories from 2015 and 1864


By GK Harkness

November 28, 2023

Earlier that morning I finally got another snowbound semi-truck out of the Arctic landscape of what once had been a promising milo field, limped it over to the rutted track that now passed for a county road and paused to consider my remaining options. Maybe the other loads would float downstream on their own when the drifts melted? Or perhaps they’d simply sink out of sight and save me the trouble of breaking more tow chains?

On the long cold walk back to get my pickup, now a snow-covered mile and a half away and well out of sight to the west, a thin grey fog wove its way across the plains and embraced a disappearing horizon. An icy mist of freezing drizzle glazed the remaining snow and the only sound on this nearly windless day was the slow shrill screech of a long-abandoned windmill. Passing by it I watched the battered vane quarter ever so slightly in the almost imperceptible breeze, first north... then northwest... back to the north... now northeast... as fickle and indecisive as the moody daylight. The dense misty air drew nearer and closed in around me until I was alone in a landscape with vague and shifting boundaries. Both tenuous and enfolding, fog becomes a cocoon that dulls some senses and sharpens others. Thoughts flicker and bloom on the edges of consciousness and the improbable sometimes grows legs and walks alongside both real and spectral travelers following the same path.

It was at sunrise, on a bitter morning very much like this, one hundred fifty-eight years ago today, and less than thirty minutes distant from this setting, that two vastly different groups of people met in the winding hollows of Big Sandy Creek. Call it what you will, massacre, battle, fight, or callous retribution, one thing is without doubt, the blood that soaked the snow on that day lies there still, little tempered by the intermittent flow of that uncertain prairie stream.

The rusty symphony of the old windmill sounded different now, a keening on the lonely wind, a piercing song of both loss and tarnished victory, crying out from a past that few today can truly understand. The lens of the present often hides a harsh truth, and what we would have it be is rarely what was. Lost lives still speak to us as fellow voyagers in the mist and stark shadows glide out of antiquity and stare us down.

I was glad to reach the shelter of the pickup and leave behind my cold, unsettling companions from 1864.

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