During the fall of 1918, the influenza pandemic crosses the nation & reaches the mining town of Butte, Montana. I wrote about it in Beautiful Ghost. You can read the description of the flu coming to town here.
The wolf dog wanders through the town where mining fumes singe the air, and tin shacks, thrown together in desperation, sit next to French mansions and yards flagged with cobblestone. He rambles past the Cabbage Patch, where bootleggers and criminals live in downtrodden shanties and the king of the Patch rules the poor with an iron club. The dog walks through Dublin Gulch, a rough bit of Butte, inhabited by stubborn Irish people and sour-faced old women, who rarely shop for fine china or cast-iron pots at the town’s one department store. He continues his journey through Chinatown, past the opium dens, and down to the train depot on East Front Street.
He sits on the platform, under a center overhang, out of the rain, and watches the passengers disembark. Soot covers every surface of the depot, and, as the sky darkens, the wolf dog feels something coming. Something rising up out of the ground, on the wind, or perhaps in a blanket. Or maybe, a young woman carries it in her lap as the train roars across the country from the east to Montana. This tiny thing is barely a whisper. But it’s there, wanting to live and live strong. It floats among the people hugging and kissing in the depot’s large waiting room. It lights on jackets of men smoking, and hovers in the perfumed air where women tend to private matters.
When the travelers disperse, the wolf dog’s great haunches carry him up to the black metal head frames. Butte miners cramped together in cages wait to be let down into the dark tunnels where they extract copper. Before work, they leave meat scraps and pieces of dried bread on a rock for the dog. At the end of the day, when they rise up out of the shaft, their faces grimed with dirt, they pat the dog’s head and tell him he’s good.
He lifts his large paws as he crosses Park Street and weaves his way through the people who haven’t yet recovered from last year’s fire on the hill. The town still spins from the dark mass of men who hung Frank Little. They hung a man for trying to do good, for daring to lend his voice to justice. They hung him for his words, for speaking out against those who oppressed the miners.
The fortunate in town have money and food and hold their loved ones tight. The fatherless children cuddle into their mothers’ skirts. They know loss and they know love. They know meatless stews and crowded boarding rooms where there are plenty of other children to play with. With their fathers taken by the mining accident and the town swirling just outside of grief, the kids pull water, carry wood, and take care of the younger children. Their mothers work in shops, cafes, and the mansions on the hill, and bring home a meager pay.
The wolf dog loves one of these children, a boy who never had a father or a mother. Someone dropped him off at The Polly May Home for Kids, and never looked back. Now the boy has a new family—a mother, a grandmother, a young sister, and a father who is off at war and writes glorious letters to him. “Be good, my boy,” his new father writes. “Take care of your mother and sister.” Almost ten years old now, the boy has grown tall. He works keeping the bakery clean, supplying wood for the bread ovens, delivering food to the sick and elderly.
The boy has heart and gumption. He has a good mind. Somehow, he learned to love. Maybe from the woman at The Polly May where he once lived. He misses her. Some good things happened there. The wolf dog found him there. He loves the wolf dog, and the dog feels it in the very center of his ancient being.
This speck of something that has entered the town, maybe on the train, or the leather straps of a trunk, or in the cough of a miner, worries the dog for the boy’s sake. The dog wants him safe. This tiny thing, this unseen element, hovers nearby, ready to pounce and steal the boy’s breath.
The thing is so tiny the dog can’t even tear it to shreds with his great teeth. His claws are nothing against it. He can’t find it so he can smash it into the dirt, or bury it. He can only feel it out there. Waiting. Lurking.