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The Picnic

Ernie Johnson, Colorado, USA
April 1999

I used to be a traveling salesman and Montana was part of my sales territory. My route took me through a section of the Blackfeet Reservation, and I always noticed the white metal crosses on stakes that are placed along the sides of the road. The reservation authorities place these crosses in spots where traffic fatalities have occurred, as memorials but also to keep travelers mindful of the dangers of this winding two-lane road. Unfortunately alcoholism is a major problem on the reservation, and fatalities are all too common.

In the summer of 1989, I was driving this route when I realized my gas gauge was nearly empty. I continued on for nearly 30 miles with the needle pegged on "E", when I saw a sign for a small town 4 miles off of the main road. I made the turn and headed toward this small town, hoping for a gas station.It was late afternoon, and very hot. I rounded a curve in this very narrow road when I saw a group of about 8 people sitting in the grass on a low hill near the road. At this point the road crossed a small creek, and I was shocked to see a blue flat-bed truck on it's side, the left front quarter of the cab crushed against the concrete bridge abutment. I pulled over behind the truck, my heart pounding because I knew that some of these people must be badly injured. But as I looked up at them, they seemed completely calm, sitting with coolers and picnic baskets and blankets spread out. In fact, they didn't even notice me.

I called out through the passenger window "Do you need help? Is everyone ok?" A tall Indian dressed in dusty jeans, a red plaid shirt and ball cap stood up slowly and turned toward me. He was about 20 feet from me, but I could see his face quite clearly. His eyes were glazed and his mouth hung open, and he seemed to not really be looking at me. I said to myself "he's drunk", but I felt a cold chill run up my neck and grab my scalp. He said nothing."Is there a gas station around here?" I asked.His right hand rose slowly and pointed down the road."About a mile and a half," he said."I can ride along and show you."

I was certain that I didn't want this guy in my car."That's ok. I'll find it." And I drove off. Watching in my rear view mirror, I saw him sit down slowly. Before long I came to a small grocery with a gas pump in front. Before pumping my gas, I went in and told the Indian attendant that there was a blue truck wrecked at the bridge and there might be injuries. He looked up sharply and stared at me for a few seconds."There's nothing you can do about that blue truck," he said. Puzzled, I went out and pumped my gas. I went in and paid."Maybe we should call the police to be on the safe side," I said. He looked at me for another long spell."He ask you for a ride?" said the attendant. I was too stunned to answer."That'd be a bad idea, givin him a ride."

My throat was quite dry as I neared the bridge, going back to the highway. I had just turned on my headlights when I saw the glint of the reflectors on the abutment. But there was no wreck. And there were no picnickers on the grassy knoll by the creek. There was nothing there but eight white metal crosses, on rusting stakes shoved in the ground.

Ernie Johnson, Colorado, USA
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