BY STEVEN CARR
Copyright is held by the author.
WASTA HAD a population of eighty-two. Even though right off the main highway it was easy to miss. The sign along one side of the highway with the town’s name on it was partially obscured by the branches of a large oak tree. There was no sign on the other side. Its only businesses were a gas station, bar and small hotel, all located near each other. The rest of the town was a collection of houses lining a few streets, none of the houses more distinct than the others. The Cheyenne River was a mile away and ran parallel to the town. The seldom traveled highway 1416 originated in Wasta and extended north east, at one place only a couple hundred yards from the river.
That stretch of the river was just a narrow band of rapidly flowing water bordered on one side by a six foot wall of dried clay and a liquefied mudflat on the other side. A few dead trees stuck up out of the glue-like grey mud like grasping broken fingers reaching for a lifeline to be pulled out. There were no houses, or any structures at all, nearby. Scrub and prairie grass carpeted most of the surrounding land. There was a stench in the air, the mixture of odours from sun-baked vegetation and the decaying bodies of deer, beavers, rabbits and raccoons.
Preston Willis, a tall, lanky man with a handlebar moustache, stood in a patch of scrub grass and with a long rope lowered a locked metal box wrapped in chains into the mud. Holding the end of the rope he watched the box sink about four feet and disappear.
“No one will find you there,” he said aloud.
He tied the end of the rope around a rock, covered it with dirt and went back to his dented and rust covered truck.
He scanned the landscape, whistled, and watched as Daisy, his pet black and white mutt, came running from a nearby hillock. She had a small brown hare in her mouth. The hare was kicking its back legs. Daisy wasn’t a hunting animal, and treated small animals as if they were toys. She hadn’t bitten into the hare, but held it tightly in her jaws.
“Good girl,” Preston said as he patted her head, and then extricated the hare from her mouth.
He placed the hare on the ground, and finding itself suddenly free, it blindly ran into the mud. Within a few yards it was stuck, and then began to sink. The hare’s screeching made the hairs on Preston’s arms stand up.
The bartender, Bob, didn’t mind that Preston had brought Daisy into the bar.
“I had a mutt also. They make the best pets,” Bob said, and then added, “My dog died.”
Daisy laid on the floor by the bar stool Preston was sitting on.
“What killed your dog?”
“At the mudflats a few miles out of town a rabid raccoon bit him,” Bob said. “I had to put him down.”
“That’s too bad.” Preston said.
Bob poured whiskey into a shot glass and sat it on the bar in front of Preston. “Where you from?” he said.
Preston picked up the glass and downed the whiskey. “Not that far away. Mitchell.”
“The Corn Palace town.”
“Yep, that town,” he said. “Give me another shot.” He slid the whiskey glass toward the bartender.
He glanced around the bar. It looked like someone had gone crazy with the colour blood-red. The walls and ceiling were painted with it. The seats in the two booths were that color as were the tops of the four tables in the middle of the room. A large buffalo head with peeling hide hung on one wall. Badly painted pictures of cowboys, horses and Indians cluttered the walls. The lighting was dim. There were four other customers, men wearing cowboy boots and Stetsons, sitting in pairs at separate tables. They talked to one another in hushed tones, as if they were exchanging secrets.
“Do you know Carla Hawkins?” Preston said to Bob.
Bob wiped the bar with a damp cloth. “Every guy over the age of 18, and a few younger, from Pine Ridge to Rapid City knows Carla,” he said with a suggestive laugh.
As Bob poured the whiskey in the glass, Preston grabbed his arm and squeezed it with his large, meaty hand. “That’s my ex-wife you’re talking about,” he said.
“Sorry,” Bob said, wincing.
Preston let go of Bob’s arm. “Where does she live?”
Bob rubbed the hand imprint that Preston had left in his arm. “She lives in the only trailer in Wasta. It’s at the end of Pine Street. You can’t miss it.”
Preston gulped down the whiskey and then slammed the glass down on the bar. “Tell me, you ever screwed my ex?”
Bob stepped back from the bar, out of Preston’s reach. He said with a stammer, “No, I didn’t mean I knew her personally. It’s just talk, about her. You know how rumours like that spread.” Beads of sweat formed on his upper lip. “No one ever mentioned Carla had ever been married.”
Preston stood up and threw a $10 bill on the bar. “That should cover it.”
“Sure, that’s plenty,” Bob said. “Before you leave, I didn’t get your name.”
Daisy stood and followed as Preston began to leave. “I didn’t give it,” he said.
“You’re not really from Mitchell, are you?”
Preston opened the door to go out. “No.”
Carla’s trailer sat on a patch of bare earth at a distance from the other houses on Pine Street. There were two plastic pink flamingos stuck in the dirt on each side of the path that led to the trailer door. Wilted tomato plants stood along the front of the trailer. There were no tomatoes on them. A black rubber mat with the word “welcome” on it was at the base of the three wood stairs that led up to the door. Painted neon pink, the trailer practically glowed in the harsh sunlight.
Preston got out of his truck and raised his green snakeskin boots one at a time and brushed them off on the back of his pants legs. He lifted his cowboy hat and with his hands he smoothed back his thinning, gray-streaked hair, and then placed the hat back on his head, making sure it was straight.
“C’mon girl,” he said to Daisy who was sitting in the passenger seat and looking at Preston expectantly.
Daisy jumped out of the truck and Preston closed the door. Together they walked up the path. At the door, Preston adjusted his large silver belt buckle, and then knocked on the door.
When Carla opened the door, he punched her in the face, sending her falling backwards onto the floor.
“Goddammit, Preston, you busted my nose,” she said as blood gushed from her nostrils. She pinched her nose between her fingers and leaned her head back. “Why did you do that?”
“That’s for taking all the money we had in the bank when you disappeared,” he said.
“That was five years ago,” she said.
With Daisy following behind, Preston entered the trailer and looked around. Everything in it was as pink as the outside of the trailer. “I need a place to lay low for a bit. Your mother said your last address she had was here, so I tracked you down.” He closed the door. “She was surprised you were back here in Wasta.”
Carla stood up. “How is Mom?” she said.
“Dead,” he said. “It happened a few days after I saw her in the nursing home. I left Sioux Falls before her funeral.”
Carla pulled a handful of tissues from a pink box sitting on a plastic, pink coffee table and wiped the blood from her face. “I guess I’m supposed to feel something, but I don’t.”
Daisy sat on her haunches next to Preston’s leg.
“I see Daisy has grown,” Carla said. How old is she now?”
Preston patted Daisy’s head. “Nine.”
Carla sat on the arm of her pink sofa and crossed her legs. “We grew up here and then left this town twenty years ago and here we are back again. When I left you I never thought I’d see you again, especially not here in Wasta.”
“I needed to hide out in place I’m familiar with, plus I’m practically broke,” he said.
Are you in trouble with the law?” she said.
He ran his fingers across his moustache. “No, I have something that belongs to John Hawk Wing.”
“The guy you were in juvy with when you were a teenager?”
There was a knock on the door. Carla stood up and started for the door.
“I’ll get it,” Preston said, pushing her back. He opened the door.
Jerry Tredwell was standing on the top step. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. “It’s true. You have come back.
When Gabe Kenny said he was pretty sure it was you he saw in the Prairie Fire, I couldn’t believe it, but I knew right off if it was you, this is where you’d be headed.”
“You shouldn’t look for people who don’t want to be found,” Preston said. “It might not be good for your health.”
Jerry stepped down a step. “In a town this size it’s almost impossible not to be found,” he said. “I’m still living on Elm Street in the house my folks owned if you start to feel sociable.”
“I’ve stopped being the sociable type. There’s no advantage in it,” Preston said. “Pass the word around town that Carla’s business is shut down for the time being.” He slammed the door closed.
A hot wind blew from the direction of the Badlands formations. The sun-scorched yellow prairie grass waved back and forth like swirling river currents. Grasshoppers bounced from one blade of grass to the next. A meadowlark had stationed itself on a nearby fencepost and warbled its prairie aria. On the other side of the barbed wire fence, in the Badlands National Park, a small herd of buffalo grazed along a dry stream bed.
“I brought you in on the deal and you stole from me,” John Hawk Wing said as he sharpened the blade of his knife on a stone. “Where’s the stuff?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Preston said. “I’ve put it in a safe place.”
John glanced toward the formations in the distance. The bright sunlight brought out the purple and pink in the layers of rock. With a scowl on his face he looked back at Preston and said, “Then why did you contact me to meet you here?”
“It was better that I meet you face to face then have you find me and get me from behind when I wasn’t expecting it,” Preston said.
John held his knife up and examined both sides of the blade. “How is Carla, these days?”
“So, you knew where I’ve been hiding out?”
“Of course, I knew,” John said. “Before you high tailed it out of Sioux Falls with the goods, there was no one left who’d take you in but Carla, and I knew all along she was in Wasta.”
“She didn’t take me in willingly,” Preston said. He gazed at Daisy chasing something hidden in the grass on the other side of the fence.
John followed Preston’s gaze. “That dog is the only living thing you’ve never betrayed.”
Preston whistled. Daisy jumped over the fence and came running. “I want a bigger cut,” he said.
“The deal we made, stands,” John said. “You know where to find me on the reservation. Bring me the cocaine by tomorrow morning or I’m coming after you to kill you.”
Daisy sat on the lowered tailgate as Preston pumped gas into his truck. The wind blew dust eddies across the parking lot. Visible waves of heat rose from the cement. Huge sweat stains had formed in the armpits of his shirt. Rivulets of sweat ran down his spine and between his legs. He took the nozzle and placed it back on the gas dispenser, and then went into the gas station. Just inside the door, he stopped, closed his eyes, and let the cool conditioned air wash over him.
“You’re Preston Willis, aren’t you?” the elderly woman behind the counter and leaning on the cash register, said.
“Maybe,” he said. “Who’s asking?”
“I’m Dorothy Farr. I used to babysit you when you were really small,” she said. “I heard you were back.”
“People in this town do too much talking,” he said. “I’m not back for good.”
Dorothy turned her head and looked out the large plate glass window. “That your dog?”
“He looks just like the one you had when you were little,” she said.
Preston took his wallet out of his back pants pocket, opened it and put a $5 bill on the counter. “I don’t remember having a dog when I was a kid.”
“You sure did,” she said. “You and that dog went everywhere together. When it died it broke your heart.”
“I don’t remember that at all.” He put the wallet back in his pants and walked out the door.
He looked at Daisy, and then he remembered. The other dog’s name was also Daisy.
Carla was sitting in a lawn chair in front of the trailer. She was wearing a bright yellow bikini and had covered her exposed skin with suntan oil. She had balls of cotton stuffed in her nostrils. Her face was bruised.
Preston and Daisy got out of the truck and walked together down the path toward her. They stopped a few feet from her. Daisy ran to her and sniffed her skin, and then returned to Preston’s side.
“I just met with John Hawk Wing outside of Wall,” Preston said. “He wasn’t in the negotiating mood.”
Carla tipped the bottle of oil, adding more to her tanned left leg. “What now?”
“He knew I was here with you. I’m leaving before he decides to follow through on his threat to kill me. Can I borrow a couple hundred dollars?”
“I don’t have it,” she said. “Besides, I grew tired of saving your ass every time you got into trouble a long time ago.”
Preston walked into the trailer, gathered his things from the living room floor, and then walked out. With Daisy following, he passed Carla without saying anything, threw his things into the back, urged the dog into the truck, and then he got in. The rear wheels of the truck spit out clouds of dirt and rock as Preston put his foot on the gas pedal and drove away.
Preston stood at the edge of the mudflat watching crows gathering on the branches of a dead tree. He held the rope attached to the metal box in his hand, ready to start pulling the box up, when he heard Daisy barking and yelping from the pasture behind him. He turned and saw the dog fighting with a raccoon. Preston let loose of the rope, and as the soupy mud sucked the rope into it, he picked up the rock and ran to where the two animals were fighting. The raccoon stood on its hind legs, baring its teeth and chattering while lunging at Daisy. Blood was running from bites on Daisy’s nose, jaws and legs.
Preston grabbed Daisy and threw her aside, and then raised the rock and brought it down hard on the raccoon’s head. It fell over and laid in the grass convulsing for several minutes before it stopped breathing.
Preston took his dog in his arms and carried it to the truck. “I’ll get you to a vet, Daisy, don’t you worry,” he said as he laid the dog in the front passenger seat.
Before getting in the truck, he glanced at the place in the mud where he thought the box had been lowered. It looked no different than the rest of the mudflat. Speeding away he glanced in the rear-view mirror and wondered how long it would take John Hawk Wing to catch up with him.