“We didn’t find nothin’, Hiram.”
Joe Grissom had been sheriff since territorial days, because he kept the peace and always brought in his man, but now he stood shamefaced in front of Hiram and Nellie Folsom. Joe turned to a tearful Nellie.
“There’s a good two foot of snow on, Ma’am and there ain’t a track to be seen.”
That morning, Hiram Folsom had risen before dawn to tend to the milking, and four year old Millie Folsom had gone to the barn with her father, in the midst of a light snow. One of the barn cats was nursing a new litter in the hay, and Millie was enthralled with the kittens. But soon enough, the cold was nipping at her small toes, so her father walked her to the barn door and watched as she headed for the pre-dawn lantern lights showing in the kitchen window. Satisfied, he returned to his milking.
Two hours later, he trudged across the frozen barnyard in the early morning sun to the warmth of the house, shaking off the dusting of snow in the mud room. Nellie placed a hot cup of coffee on the table for him and glanced behind her husband.
The light dusting of snow on the hard ground revealed no tracks, and a quick search of the outbuildings revealed no trace of the missing child. Hiram had to force a now frantic Nellie to don her winter clothing before she ran to the fields in search of her missing daughter. He saddled a horse and rode quickly to town to organize a search party.
Sheriff Grissom reckoned that a child Millie’s age and size could not have walked more than a couple miles an hour at best, which placed her within ten miles of the farm at most. Marvin Hardy’s tracking hounds picked up her scent in the barnyard easily enough, but lost it after that, giving no indication of which direction to take.
“This snow will help us, if she’s moving, so watch for tracks. Space yourselves out far enough to cover ground, but not so far that you might miss her. We’ll circle the farm and then move out farther and circle again.”
The big sheriff paused and watched Hiram bringing Nellie in from the fields. He looked at the sky and shook his head.
“We have to find her today, men. Tomorrow will be too late”
The men in the search party nodded. They all remembered the day Jacob Fry got lost in a blizzard, walking from the barn to the house. They found him during an early thaw, under a drift, and not a hundred feet from the house.
The gray sky thickened, and the light snow became heavier. The temperature quickly dropped ten degrees, and the searchers put their collars up against the quickening wind. No one said anything, but they all knew that a norther was blowing in, and what that meant to a small child, lost and alone on the prairie.
By late afternoon, the search had widened to nearly eight miles from the farm, and the snow was falling in earnest. Hundreds of tracks were examined, but none were those of a small child. In the dwindling light of late afternoon, the sheriff gathered up his search party and sent them home. Then he rode back to the Folsom farm to admit defeat.
Now he stood uncomfortably before the parents, hat in hand. Emily Grissom, the Sheriff’s wife, stood with an anguished Nellie, her large arm around her shoulders. She had driven a wagon from town, with food and supplies for the search party, but the mounting blizzard now had them all trapped at the farm.
While the men tended to the evening chores, the women busied themselves with supper, welcoming the diversion of work. Nellie was now dry-eyed, but her face was haunted. Millie had been warmly dressed, but she had not eaten all day, and food was essential to keeping warm in the winter. Outside, the blowing snow increased, and the wail of the wind took on a sinister note.
Supper was subdued, with Nellie picking listlessly at her food. Joe Grissom and Emily glanced at each other but said nothing. Hiram was deep in thought, eating his food mechanically. At last he spoke.
“It don’t make no sense. Millie was well on her way to the house, and she done it many times before, so why would she go off somewhere else? It just don’t make no sense.”
Sheriff Joe sat back in his chair and regarded Hiram Folsom.
“Maybe your dog took off after a rabbit. Maybe she followed. Or maybe she followed that cat somewhere.”
Hiram shook his head.
“No. The cat was nursing her litter, and old Prince was sleeping where he always does. It just don’t make no sense, Joe.”
“We’ll start looking for her again, come morning, Hiram.”
Sheriff Joe glanced at Nellie, who was looking down at her hands, saying nothing.
“I’ll have the whole search party back out at first light, Nellie. We ain’t give up. Not by any measure. “
Nellie raised her head and gazed steadily at Sheriff Joe Grissom.
“Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, Joe. It would be fitting to find my Millie.”
Hiram banked the fire, while Joe and Emily climbed up into the loft for the night. Nellie was still silent, but her haunted eyes spoke of her motherly despair and anguish. Somewhere, out there in the South Dakota badlands, was her baby, alone and frightened.
If she was still alive.
Hiram Folsom was a craftsman, so the cabin he had built was snug and warm, a realization that brought little comfort to the four adults. Outside, the wind picked up again, and moaned under the eaves. The driven snow pelted the walls, and Hiram put his arm around his wife to comfort her. She did not respond.
Big Joe Grissom was dreaming of a dog sled, being pulled along by a yapping team, when he felt Emily pulling on his arm.
“Something’s out there, Joe! Hiram is already up and getting dressed.”
Over the shriek of the wind, he could hear old Prince, barking frantically at something, and the agitated horses were also making a racket in the stables. He grabbed his pants and coat and started to dress.
Hiram was already dressed, and lighting lanterns when Joe came down from the loft. The two men looked at each other and checked the loads in their rifles.
“Could be wolves, or maybe a bear. Sam Johnson saw one down by Spider Creek, just last month.”
The Sheriff shook his head. “Could be, but most critters have better sense than to be out in weather like this. They’ll be holed up, most likely.” At the pained look on Hiram’s face, Joe instantly regretted his remark. Millie was out there, somewhere.
Hiram tried to lift the bar, but the door was jammed. Joe pushed the door back against the wind while Hiram worked the bar back and forth, until it suddenly came free. They eased the door open, and were rewarded by a blast of frigid air and blowing snow. Hiram had cleared a path earlier, but there was now an additional foot of snow, and they could see a growing drift by the well house.
“Shut and bar the door behind us, Nellie, and check my spare rifle for loaded. Maybe you should put on some coffee.” He patted his wife’s shoulder and the two men stepped out the door.
They could see the well house through the snow, but not the barn. Prince had probably heard them opening the door to the house, because he had calmed down some, but the horses were still making plenty of noise. Hiram shouted in Joe’s ear over the shriek of the wind.
“We’ll walk to the well house, and from there, we can probably see the barn.”
Both men knew the danger of losing their direction in such a blizzard. More than one man had lost his life that way, and they were both remembering Jacob Fry.
They reached the well house, and from there, they could just make out the shape of the barn. Hiram had started to move forward when he felt Joe grab his arm, and point to his right. For a moment, he saw nothing, but then, in the pale yellow light of the lanterns, the shape of a large gray wolf materialized out of the gloom. He pulled off his mitten with his teeth, and raised his rifle.
“Hold up, there, dammit! Just you hold up.”
The voice was deep and guttural, and the speaker was at first unseen. Both men peered intently into the white curtain of blowing snow, and then saw a huge shape loom out of the murk, made even larger by the heavy buffalo coat he wore.
He was a monster of a man. Sheriff Grissom was an easy two inches over six feet, and he found himself looking up at the figure standing before him. The man’s face was covered by a long, ebony beard, which flowed halfway down his coat, and his uncut hair covered his shoulders. He was wearing a heavy fur headpiece that Joe guessed was the skin of a wolverine. His massive buffalo coat came almost to his knees, and his feet were covered with handmade, fur lined boots, laced up to his knees.
Sheriff Grissom nodded at the man. “Hello Wolfer.” He turned to Hiram. “This here is Wolfer Diggs, Hiram.”
Wolfer Diggs was a local legend. He made his living as a trapper, and from the bounty paid on wolves. He also made out on an occasional beef or horse that the owner wasn’t watching very closely.
Seldom seen, he had a reputation as a man to be left strictly alone. No one knew where he lived, and the rumor was that he had a cave somewhere in the foothills. He was also rumored to have killed several men, although that was mostly just talk, in Sheriff Grissom’s opinion.
The one man he was known to have killed was Grub Baker, the man who had bothered and murdered Wolfer’s squaw. When Wolfer caught up with him in Deadwood, a frantic Baker was seen shooting into Wolfer twice, and at point blank range, but Wolfer just kept coming. He grabbed Baker and crushed him in a massive bear hug, breaking his back. He then dumped his lifeless body on the street and walked away without a word.
Sheriff Grissom jerked his head toward the cabin.
“We had best get inside. It must be near zero out here.”
Hiram eyed the wolf. “I reckon you can put him up in the well house.”
Wolfer grunted. “He’ll make out by his ownself. He always does.”
Hiram pounded on the door. “Open up Nellie.”
The women gasped and took an involuntary step backwards as Wolfer Diggs ducked through the door and stood in front of them. Then Nellie regained her composure and offered the men some coffee. She was aware of the huge man’s eyes following her. Still standing, he began to unlace the rawhide holding his coat closed.
“Reckon this is yours, ma’am.” He opened his coat to reveal a feed sack resting on his massive stomach, supported by a leather strap around his neck. He lifted it off and placed it on the table, where he gently opened the sack to reveal little Millie Folsom, wrapped in a blanket, warm and sound asleep.
Later, Wolfer awkwardly drank coffee from his cup, obviously not used to anything so small. He was a man who missed little, and had seen the search party. At his question, another trapper had told him about the missing child.
“So when I seen that party of Sioux holed up, about ten mile yonder, I watched for a spell, and sure enough, I heard her cryin’, scared-like, so I rode on down there. Seems one of them young bucks spotted that girl while he was looking for something to steal, and the damn fool brought her back to camp. They was only too pleased to be shed of her, fearful of the Army coming after her, so I traded for her.”
“You traded for her?” Nellie had assured herself that Millie was unharmed, and placed her in her small bed. She dried her tears, and then gave Wolfer Diggs a long hug, much to his embarrassment. Now they were all seated at the table, listening to him.
“Yes, ma’am. I traded my two horses for her. And then I set out to bring her home.”
Joe and Hiram stared at him. Then Joe spoke. “You walked ten miles in a blizzard?”
Wolfer Diggs studied the rafters in thought for a moment. “I reckon. I make it to be nigh on ten, maybe eleven mile. Thereabout.”
“How did find your way in this blinding snow? Men have lost their way in less than fifty feet.”
“I ain’t never lost. I just set out and here I am.”
Hiram spoke up. “I have two good horses in the barn you can have. The bay and the dun. They’re yours, and I thank you sir.”
Emily Grissom broke her silence. “Well, it has been a hard day for all, so we should get some rest. Where do you want Mister Diggs to bed down, Nellie?”
“I’ll make out in the barn, ma’am. I ain’t used to sleeping in no bed.” Wolfer eyed the sheriff. “You got any papers on me lawman?”
Joe chuckled. “No, but I have a few irritated ranchers and farmers who think I should have!”
Nellie stood. “Then let’s go to bed. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I‘ll have to get an early start if I’m to cook a dinner.” She turned to Wolfer. “May I ask your given name, Mister Diggs?“
Wolfer blushed. “It’s James, ma’m.”
“Well, may God bless you Mister James Diggs for bringing my daughter home, safe and unharmed. Thank you, sir.”
Nellie and Emily were hard at work over the cook stove when Joe and Hiram returned from doing chores. Nellie looked past them at the closed door, a question on her face.
“Where’s Mister Diggs?”
Hiram looked at Joe before replying. “Looks like he rode off in the middle of the night, Nellie. He was gone when we went to milk.”
Emily looked at Joe, and placed her hands on her hips. “Well, you just go after him and bring him back, Joe Grissom! He’s the guest of honor, and I won’t hear of him going hungry today,”
The sheriff grinned, ruefully. “Reckon I can’t go after him, Em.”
“Well, why on earth not?”
“Because when he left with the horses Hiram gave him, he stole mine for good measure!”