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By Tatjana Soli

Photo courtesy of Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

11.27.17

Tatjana Soli spent September as Aspen Words writer-in-residence, where she made the final edits to "The Removes," a forthcoming novel ($27, Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) set to be released in June 2018. She is the author of The New York Times best-seller "The Lotus Eaters," "The Forgetting Tree" and "The Last Good Paradise." "The Removes" tells the story of Libby Custer, wife of the legendary general and Indian fighter, George Armstrong Custer, interwoven with the account of a young girl taken by a Sioux war party and held in captivity for years, and the ways in which each woman is transformed by the addictive intensity of their experiences in the American frontier.

DAKOTA BLIZZARD

After Libbie heard the last of the horses pass the cabin on the road to town, there followed the most forlorn silence, accompanied only by the howling wind. For a panicked moment she considered rushing outside and begging to be taken with them, but at mid-afternoon it was already dark, the soldiers must hurry, and in her husband’s debilitated state they would be a fatal burden.

Like a coal, Autie burned with fever. Libbie examined the state of the shelter that she had chosen so casually but now depended on for their survival. Incredibly, the wind increased, its groans growing louder and more agonized, the entire structure leaning with each buffet of wind. Built without a foundation, it was not impossible that the roof might blow off, if the whole thing did not simply overturn like the child’s playhouse it resembled. The building was like an old tugboat put out to sea past its prime, and they might just as surely perish in snow as at sea.

Eliza had not been able to procure a stove in town, and now they suffered. Fully dressed Libbie remained under the blankets next to him to keep warm. He tossed the robes off as regularly as she put them back, tucking them under his chin. Each hour she warmed her icy fingers with her breath so that she could pour the medicine into a spoon without spilling a precious drop. In this way they passed the night, the most isolated and frightful one she could remember, assuming an end to the storm with the coming morning.

Libbie had finally fallen into a light sleep when a heavy, thudding sound became part of her dream. She woke and saw Eliza frantically trying to open the door. For a moment, Libbie thought the girl had gone mad and jumped up to stop her until she realized the pounding was coming from the outside. Had rescue arrived? The door was frozen shut. After the two women finally managed to tug it open, they were met with a wall of snow that they had to dig through with their bare hands even as those on the outside dug in with shovels. At long last six soldiers stumbled inside.

Poor men! They had lost their way on foot to Yankton. Disoriented, they retraced their steps even as those steps were being erased. Blindly they had passed the hut numerous times, locating it at last only by the faint glow of the oil lamp that Eliza had the foresight to put in the tiny window. As soon as the men came into the shelter, though, Libbie realized their needs—fire, bedding, food, medicines—far outstripped her ability to aid. In desperation she remembered the carpets packed for the new home at the garrison. Eliza and she broke open a chest and were able to wrap each man in a rug cocoon.

When morning appeared, their hopes of rescue were crushed again. The storm intensified its raging. What light came to them was dim twilight, drifts burying them alive. Ailing soldiers, her husband ill, and Eliza and she without the means to prepare nourishing food or give medicine. Her heart quaked.

Night descended again. It seemed impossible, but the storm increased in ferocity. It was unnatural, demonic. It seemed more likely than not that as the shed grew colder, despite the bodies inside, that they might perish.

Periodically she went to the single window and melted a small view out from the frozen pane with her hand. Solid white shifting walls. For moments the view would open and then just as suddenly slam shut. Drifts capriciously formed and were swept away. This seemed the normal state of things to Libbie’s mind; sunshine and grass were just hearsay. The devouring wind had cleared the front door but had packed snow to the roofline on the other three sides.

In the middle of the night came the sound of many hooves, and Libbie was giddy that at last the regiment had come to their rescue. Melting her view out the window she saw a group of mules using the front wall as shelter. They jostled against each other for warmth. Driven mad by the cold, they bit and kicked at each other before finally moving off into the storm again, disappearing behind white walls as if they were the last forlorn creatures on earth.

Libbie had entered the most terrible kind of dream.

The kind that was real and was your life and you could not awake from.

The barking, whining sound of a dog woke her. Confused, she rushed to the window to see a trembling canine form, but by the time she managed to pry open the door he had disappeared back into the snowy murk. Poor Eliza had collapsed and now slept, and Libbie let the girl rest.

The whole world consisted only of snow and cold and fear. Libbie grew so disoriented time lost all meaning. Either minutes or hours had passed when she awoke again, this time to the terrified squealing of a band of boars pushing against the rickety door so that it threatened to collapse in. She screamed to Eliza for help, and they set their backs against the brittle boards, pummeled by each outraged thrust. Starving boars could easily attack and eat men whole.

The whole world consisted only of snow and cold and fear. Libbie grew so disoriented time lost all meaning. Either minutes or hours had passed when she awoke again, this time to the terrified squealing of a band of boars pushing against the rickety door so that it threatened to collapse in. She screamed to Eliza for help, and they set their backs against the brittle boards, pummeled by each outraged thrust. Starving boars could easily attack and eat men whole.

Much later—it might have been morning or evening again—Libbie woke to the repeated neighing of a distressed horse. It went on for an hour, making sleep impossible, so that she hung on waiting for the next sound, disturbed both to hear the animal again and then to not. When the horse seemed finally to stop, Libbie was overcome with the most terrific remorse, imagining the sad beast had at last succumbed to the elements.

She grabbed the sash of her coat and opened the door to see a cavalry bay looking at her with wild, crazed eyes. In his state, he could have trampled her, but Libbie could not bear passivity any longer, doing nothing for an ailing fellow creature. She must take charge or go mad. 

The space between them had magically cleared for a moment like the eye of a hurricane so that Libbie, trudging out in Autie’s boots, could walk the twenty feet to the horse and slip the sash around his neck, he now steady as a docile house pet. She led him through the door inside. The minute she closed it behind the horse, the storm slammed down and obliterated the opening she had just walked through, packing it tightly shut. A moment sooner or later, the two might have perished.

The horse stood in the middle of the room like some phantasmagoria, as content as if the cabin were merely another barn stall, which it greatly resembled. The air turned feral and moist as the ice melted off the animal’s coat, puddling on the ground where he sipped it. In her corner Eliza woke briefly, her eyes going wide, sure that either Libbie or she herself had gone lunatic. Sharing quarters with both the General and a horse, her world turned topsy-turvy. Her answer was to close her eyes and hope reality was a dream. The soldiers, either asleep or preoccupied with their pain, took no particular notice of the new guest. Libbie’s heart jumped when Autie woke up once. He looked at the horse dreamily and seeming well satisfied went back to sleep.

Although the snow stopped the next morning, they discovered themselves to be buried within the cabin and seemingly forgotten to the outside world.

Hours later, digging could be heard, and there came a knock on the door. They were delivered by a posse made up of the citizens of the town and soldiers.

The horse stepped daintily between the men and trotted outside as if they were his strange dream.

The men who had sheltered with them ended up losing fingers, toes and even ears to frostbite. In camp an unlucky few had whole feet and legs amputated, but all lived. A miracle that no soldiers had frozen to death, although many had suffered a variety of calamities from the storm. The soldier guarding the horses had tried his best to shelter Autie and Libbie’s puppies by holding them against himself and sharing his blankets, but despite that the entire litter had frozen to death, one by one. The only ray of light came on receiving the news that a laundress stranded in a tent on the far side of camp had safely given birth to one hardy little soul.