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Flatline across the prairie

by Vivian Hansen

If you see a flatline on hospital instruments, it tells you that the person hooked up to the box is dead. Nothing left to save, the stories silent; it is time to mourn. But you might then see a blip, an indication that time has just stretched a little bit in its sleep. You think there might be a story left, something worth saving.

The prairie is just like that. Looking out toward the flat horizon, you're never really sure if there is any life out there. You think you're alone, and if you were to fall in the grass right here. . . it might be months or even years before anyone would find your body. The meeting of gold grass with cold blue sky suggests that life around here goes on forever. Time forgets to measure. But somewhere in the flatline is a blip; a signal that alerts you to life that existed before this moment - and old windmill, a rusted plough, buffalo rubbing-rock, or maybe even a coffin-handle.

The blizzard that signaled the ugly winter of 1906 was only one of many. It gave no warnings, except maybe a dark parch of cloud in the northwest sky that threatened a fierce Blue Northern. By the middle of that already frozen afternoon, the cattle had lumbered off toward the coulee to tuck themselves in for the storm.

Bob Knight told a story about that blizzard, of a young man who tried to round up the stragglers. Anyone can tell you there is no point in trying to save cattle that feel a blizzard coming on, and even the most spirited horse knows enough to stay out the killing cold. The boy must have figured he could do the impossible - find cattle that didn't want to be found.

No one saw him alive again.

You can't just imagine cold on the prairie. You have to feel it to know its white horror, frost creeping over your flesh. The flatline lets all of it in, like a knife slicing through cotton. Only the icy howl of the wind tells the story of how a boy clung to his horse, both half-dead with cold, not knowing or caring anymore where the cattle were. Not knowing how to find home or where to stop, but at last climbing a hill. . . up to meet the icy blast of flatline prairie hell: a cold, merciless space.

The wild, stark prairie south of Bassano, Alberta doesn't look like a setting for legends, but what does a legend look like after all? The Legend of Coffin-Handle Butte look like the winter of 1906, the Winter of the Blue Snow, some call it. If you had lost cattle that winter, you might have found their carcasses in the trees the following spring. Riding along a fence line, you would see where they had made their last stand, stuck to the barbed wire, frozen for months. If you had lost a son, you might have found his remains on a lonely outcropping that came to be known as Coffin-Handle Butte.

John Bartsch had always made a point of looking for the coffin handle, the one that old Bob Knight said was still up there. He never got tired of telling the story: "Magine the boy heading out in that weather, the cattle more important that his own hide. Never came back. At the first real thaw in May, someone found the kid's frozen body. No horse, no saddle, The grievin' parents brought a coffin up to the butte," said Bob, "ready to bury their son's remains where he'd been found. Story goes that a handle fell off the coffin, but no one bothered to put it back on. I've been looking for that coffin-handle all my life. Never found it. Lots of guys tell me it's just one of them silly legends, but I think the handle's still out there, you jest got t'look for it."

Bartsch never gave up looking. Neither did any of his neighbours.

In those days, there were still lots of old pioneers who could still remember that terrible winter. On heat-rippled flatline summer days, Bartsch said, he'd go searching for the coffin-handle. If he had a chance to move some cattle over by the butte, he'd take the youngsters along and tell them the story, just like it had been told to him. Them they'd spend some time looking, again. After four generations of men, no one ever expected to find the treasure anymore. No one was even really sure what it was supposed to look like. Just a local legend, you know. But around here, legends were important. Legends reminded us that we could survive the flatline.

Could a coffin-handle really last out in the prairie all those years? Bartsch doubted it, but it was still fun to search around. You never knew. So the legend survived from one boy to another, ninety years separating reality from a good tale.

Bob Knight had worked the XL Ranches for most of his life and always said he wanted to end up at Coffin-Handle Butte. Said he knew what a prairie winter was like, could weather it better than most. So when Bob's time came, no one haggled about his resting place. It was only right and proper that he be up at the butte. It wasn't the first funeral held there for sure, everyone knew that from the legend.

They made a plaque for old Bob, took some barbed-wire and wound it into a rock-sized wreath. Some cowboys said a few words. They figured Bob would have liked to hear the legend again, so Bartsch told that story too. One little kid got bored with it all and ran off down the side of the butte. No one stopped him. Like any kid, he had things to explore, coyotes to check out, and treasures to find. The service was almost over when Bartsch felt a tug on his ant leg. He glanced down, irritated by the interruption, to see the boy clutching something in his small hand.

"Mister, I found somethin' kinda neat. Whadya s'pose it is?" Bartsch looked down to check out what the prairie had yielded for yet another boy in a long line of kids and gasped in amazement. It was a rusty old coffin-handle, nickel-plated and worn in the centre where the leather had been chewed off by coyotes.

How could it be?! He'd searched his whole life, and a kid had actually found it! Just when there was no one left to tell the story. . . .

Bob Knight would have been tickled to bits. Bartsch stroked his hand over the relic, pondering that it was only right that the legend begin and end with a boy and here, at the funeral of a pioneer.

Flatline across the prairie. You have to search the grass for what the coyotes leave. . . the blips, like the buffalo wallow and a silent butte that waits for the right time and the right boy to yield a legend's treasure.

Vivian Hansenis a freelance writer/editor in Calgary. She won the 1996 Calgary Writers' Association Arrol Award for Non-fiction for the original version of "Flatline Across the Prairie," which was first published in Write-Angles. Hansen has published poetry and fiction in several Calgary magazines and currently serves on the Board of the Calgary Women's Writing Project. Her first chapbook of poetry,Never Call It Bird: the Melodies of AIDS, will be released this fall.

Article reproduced with the permission of Vivian Hansen and Legacy magazine.

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