Last night after my reading at Dickinson State, sponsored by the Heart River Writers' Circle, an older man with a cowboy hat who was sitting in the front row came up and introduced himself. He had one of those great western nicknames, which I hesitate to repeat here. So, let’s just call him Montana Slim. Anyway, as we talked, I noticed that his right eye was watering. He pushed aside a few tears and told me that he was a little under the weather because he was just recovering from a rattlesnake bite. I’ve been in North Dakota for three weeks, traveling around the state doing writing workshops for the North Dakota Humanities Council, so I’ve heard lots of stories, but I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. I tried not to show it. Really, I said. What happened?
Montana Slim said he was riding around in the Badlands all by himself when a rattlesnake decided to up and bite him. As soon as it happened, he said, he just sat down in the dirt and said, God, you’ll have to take care of me. He was way out there by himself; he knew he had no chance of getting to a hospital in time. But in a few seconds God talked back and said, Think, Slim, just think.
So Slim sat there for a while and thought. Then he remembered how a Cheyenne friend had once told him how they used to use echinacea to treat horses with rattlesnake bites. So he looked around and found some echinacea. He put the flower in his mouth and worked it into a mash, then added some water, mixed it with some clay, pulled up his pant leg and applied the concoction on the bite. He tore a strip of fabric off his t-shirt and wrapped it around his leg to apply pressure and affix the poultice to his leg.
I didn’t get a chance to ask him how long he sat there or how he got back to town. Some doubt must have passed over my face because before I could ask these questions, he was pulling up his pant leg to show me--mid-calf, just at the top of his cowboy boot, in that soft spot behind the knee were two small side-by-side puncture wounds. They were red and puffy around the edges but brown in the center, like a scab in the process of healing.
You may not believe him, but I did. Maybe just because I wanted to. Maybe his story wasn’t all true, maybe it included parts that involved ambulances and doctors. But there’s no question Montana Slim had been bit by a snake.
This place seems to go on forever, and so do its stories. I feel a little snake bit myself, by Montana Slim’s story and by all the other stories I’ve heard the last three weeks. They’ll roll around my head for years, and maybe I’ll start to believe I’ve forgotten them. Then one day when I’m in real trouble, in real need of advice, they’ll come back to me with the cure for my ills. That’s what comes from listening. And for that, I’m grateful.