Custer’s Last Stand, as told by a shopkeeper

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POWDER RIVER COUNTY, Mont. – I don’t do a ton of research before we hit the road. I do my learning via visitor centres, historical plaques and lonely dudes in the last open store for 300 miles.

Our GPS, Alpha, was set to take the fastest route from Deadwood to Billings, Mont. He did his mystery calculations and carefully planned a route that was four minutes shorter than the interstate. “In 800 metres, take the exit right. Exit right now, then take the motorway.”

The motorway was the 212, which runs roughly parallel but not too close to the I90. A two-lane highway through the plains with a suggested speed limit of 75, it has neither traffic nor services. And it is stunning.

There are so many horses in South Dakota and Montana. I had expected to see this many in Texas, yet here they are up north with thousands of acres to graze and prace and ignore the cattle. There were hundreds of deer, too, or antelope – thankfully they weren’t close enough to the road to tell which. Eventually the land began to roll, great gentle bumps covered in sagebrush and Prairie grasses that became modestly greener as we bolted through Wyoming (about five minutes across a tiny corner of it) and into Montana.

It was near suppertime on a lazy Sunday and though our thoughts turned to food, the highway did not.

Powder River boasted (on the only billboard for 100 miles) the best food for 300 miles at the Judges Chambers in Broadus. “It’s the only food for 300 miles,” I said, and I thought I was joking. It was closed.

Everything in Broadus – a slice of highway and two or three cross streets – was closed, except the bar with half a dozen pickups outside, and the corner store.

The shopowner had a neat white beard and a gentle voice so quiet I had to strain to hear him.

“She your first?” he asked, and I shook my head, pointing to Trevor, who was at hte back of the store looking at trucker caps and rifles.

The shopowner’s children spanned 13 years. The baby was 19, the last one left at home. He told me his whole story, but with his soft voice I missed big chunks of it.

His first wife left him and he met another lady with more kids to add to his brook – the 19-year-old was one of those. The second lady had some kind of midlife crisis last summer, he told me, and went from a Size 12 to a Size 7, sitting in front of the computer with coffee and cigarettes, playing WoW. Plus, she was being indiscreet.

“Indiscreet,” he said again, barely louder, to sure I understood. “That’s hard on the kids. If you’re going to do it, be discreet, you know? For the kids.” She had to go, and she didn’t take her children with her.

He followed us outside, still talking. “You’re in the country where Custer got his ass kicked. This land all belonged to the Cow, who were rather nice people. Then the Sioux came down, and they weren’t so nice. They were mean, and came to take the land. They come up against Custer and who’s he got on his side but the Crow? He came on down here in ’72.”

1872, people. Do you realize how recent that was? My grandfather was born in 1899, and I knew him well.

Two years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and in 1876 Custer led the charge to send the aboriginal tribes packing. As my friend told me, it didn’t end well for him.

“You’ll pass some white crosses up that way. That’s where they found teh bodies. They moved them eventually, but that’s where they fell, back when Custer got his ass kicked.”

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In the short term, a coalition of aboriginal tribes had their victory. But they lost in the end: They were pushed onto reservations in and around the hills. We stopped for gas and ice cream in a tiny town on Cherokee land, experiencing for half an hour what it’s like to be the minority – the only white people to have stopped in that town for heavens know how long.

Our shopkeeper had told us he taught a history class that an aboriginal boy attended. After telling him the story of Custer and the Indians’ loss of land, he asked him what he thought. “Well, it was the first drive-by, wasn’t it?” the kid responded.

An elder talked to us (mostly the baby) for a while, wishing us a peaceful and safe trip. It was exactly how the day was supposed to end.

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