Death preceded that raft by two days. Corpses, bloated and blue, their clothing slick tatters, floated down the Kootenai from Idaho and more than half went past the Thorn farm. By Lawrence Thorn’s firm order, not one of them got fished out. His boy Tom had spotted the first one—a lady, face down with her Sunday finery blooming around her like a swirl of pale algae. By the time Lawrence’d come to see, there were four others: two men, a negro woman, and a corpse that’d encountered such obstacles that it was no longer possible to tell. The river-bank smelled worse than a privy.
“Go back to the house,” Lawrence ordered him when Tom showed him. “This isn’t wholesome.”
They weren’t wholesome, true enough. What Lawrence didn’t tell his boy was he feared they’d bring nothing but disease. Lawrence’s own father and mother had built the farm he owned in the very south of Alberta, and two seasons in, when he was but 12 years old, his mother had fallen ill and died. The dead folk in the river might’ve died like that and might yet carry the sickness.
So he sent the boy inside, found himself a stout branch, did the work of dislodging the corpses as they caught in the river’s edge—sending them onward down river to whatever fate might have in store for them.
The raft came after the main flow of corpses had passed the farm. It was in the afternoon, a grey day threatening rain, and by happenstance, old Lawrence Thorn was at the river-bank with his branch—checking to see what horrors the river’d washed up, and moving them along as best he could. He was in a state of some melancholy by that point, and full wondering whether he was doing right or wrong. His own family might be protected from disease, sure enough, but what of the souls of those dead in the river, that Lawrence had let pass by without so much as a prayer for their passage to Heaven, never mind a Christian burial? What about the farm-steads down stream? The Blackfoot reserves, for that matter? If the bodies carried sickness, wasn’t he just sending it onward? What a terrible coward was old Lawrence Thorn.
It was in this temper, as the afternoon sun began to lower over the western mountains, that he spied the raft, with passengers on it, rounding the gentle bend in the river and appearing over some rocks.
The raft itself sat too low in the water, and listed badly to the right, where a tall young man stood trying to keep it steady with a branch about as big as Lawrence’s. A woman sat up at the opposite end of the vessel, cradling another woman’s head in her lap. In the middle, a negro sat clutching something in his arms, looking unwell indeed.
A day prior, Lawrence might have been a mind to wave them all on, tell them to find somewhere else to put to ground. But—as he later explained to Jason, and Dr. Andrew Waggoner and Nurse Annie Rowe, over the sleeping form of Ruth Harper that evening—his aching conscience would no longer allow that choice.