After all those bright miles of prairie, the mountains, in contrast, lived up to their name. The Black Hills, the dark hills of my girlhood. Even for me, I admit, that was a bit much. I scolded myself for the poetry, then quickly forgave.
This was a time for poetry. I was coming home to bury my brother. I had been in Omaha at the time of the call, attending a seminar on hospice care for the dying. Jack had phoned me at the Hampton Inn.
“Mom,” he said, “I’ve got some sad news. Uncle Lachlan just died.”
It didn’t register for a moment. “Where are you these days? Up in Otter Tail?”
“Mom, did you hear me?”
“Yes, Lachlan is gone. At last.”
At first I thought I would drive to the funeral, but by the time I got to Sioux Falls, I’d seen enough corn for one lifetime. Four hundred and eleven ill-affordable dollars later I was dropping toward Rapid City through the green twilight. I walked down the gangway onto the tarmac and fifty years of my life melted away. Home. I took a moment to sniff the crisp air, then felt like breaking into a canter.
“Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson. Uh, Mary.”
Omer Olsen was standing to one side of the welcoming crowd, just inside the terminal. Ever the humble servant. I hugged him. “Omer, it’s so good to see you.”
“Well, Mary. Welcome home,” he replied. In his old blue suit and wire-rim glasses, his appearance was austere and professional, as always.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Well, yes. It’s nothing compared to Lachlan’s, and he’s the one that always mattered, right?”
I followed the lawyer to his car and we drove toward the highway in silence. Once we were pointed west, toward the city, Omer said, “Mary, you’re more than welcome to the guest room. You don’t have to stay at the Corral, you know.”
“Oh, I know, Omer.” I put my hand on his. “I know old man. But I want to stay on East Omaha, down by Hannah’s old place. I need the ghosts, right now.”
Omer smiled. “Well, can I at least pick you up for breakfast, before we do the paperwork?”
“Only if it’s good and greasy. I feel like a real South Dakota breakfast, watery coffee and all.”
“That we can do you for.”
Omer turned into the parking lot of the Western Corral Motel. The twelve ramshackle units stood in a wavering line under the cottonwoods. Rapid Creek gurgled in its riprapped channel behind them.
“I was so surprised when I called, this place was still open,” I said.
“Surprised, yes. That’s the word, comes to mind. Thought the flood of ’73 would’ve wiped this blot out,” Omer said, staring at me.
“No, Omer, it’s settled. I’m staying here.”
A few moments later I opened the mildewed drapes and looked out the back window of Unit Seven, my lucky favorite. Above the railroad trestle the creek surged around rocks and shopping carts. The fairgrounds beyond stood desolate as a dead child’s room and I came unglued. The October night dissolved, a lamppost lit up, and bugs swarmed around in a warm August evening. I was at the county fair—a girl again, with my long lost parents.
I turned back to the room and did a quick inventory. The gold nylon chair with wagon wheel arms. The lampshade covered with bucking broncos. The beat-up Zenith with rabbit ears. I felt like a time-traveler, plopped into a backwater of the continuum, safe somewhere in the fifties, so long as I stayed in this room.
I locked the door behind me and walked down the line of units. I was the only guest. I turned at Twelve and braved the dark waste between the back of the motel and the river. I stumbled along the jagged creek bed until I reached the railroad bridge, a half a block down. I barely managed to pull myself up the embankment and at the top looked across the trestle to the old fairgrounds.
Was it worth the effort, even now?
Five minutes later I had reached the other side of the trestle. Something stuck to the bottom of my sensible flats—tar, I was hoping—and my legs ached from balancing along on the ties. Maybe seventy was too old to attempt anything.
I followed the railroad tracks west as they curved through the fairgrounds. On both sides I was surrounded by vacant pavilions. A shutter flapped, and naked branches snapped against boarded-up windows. I imagined the smells of barbecue, cotton candy. Straw, and fresh droppings. Looking up, I could see the headlights on the mountain near Dinosaur Park. Looking ahead, I made out the dark hedge around Aunt Hannah’s lot.
I stepped off the tracks, through the lilacs, and across the wide yard. The main boarding house was still there, the smaller cabins scattered around it like flakes to a boulder. The city hadn’t bothered with streetlights, not out here in the floodplain. I crossed the brittle lawn and tried the door on Hannah’s home unit. It was nailed shut. I walked around to the back of the building, peeking in windows.
Our parents had died when I was eleven. Lachlan was fifteen at the time. Hannah, our great-aunt on my father’s side, had taken us in. In the case of my brother, it hadn’t gone well. It was a relief when the war came a couple of years later and he left for college on a deferment. But I had stayed on, especially after Hannah’s husband, Herr Cronk died. I lived with my aunt ever after, and didn’t leave her until the end.
I finish circling the house and stood in front of Hannah’s door again. I didn’t have the heart to peer through the window, into the absence. It was long arithmetic to recall all the meals I had had there, all the evenings next to her at the table, listening to the radio, or to all of her stories. That’s how history had seeped into my bones, not through books, but through the voice of one woman’s telling.
She was with me. I closed my eyes and saw her watery blue ones. Watched them shimmer as she told her tales. How the McLachlans fled the field at Culloden, slaved in the satanic mills of East Yorkshire, then emigrated to the States, just in time for the war waged between them. How they fled west, to Minnesota, where they were looked upon with suspicion for avoiding a fight not their making. How her old grandfather had enlisted in the Army, even though he was forty, just to stop the neighbors from calling him Rebel Charlie.
How Charles had served in one battle—Nashville—before being wounded. How his son John (Hannah’s father) had left Olmsted County, and all of it Swedes, and settled north of the Hills in Dakota. This, when Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were still men and not legends. How John drove the stage from the ill-stared shambles of Deadwood to Fort Abraham Lincoln, from which the ill-stared General Custer marched out one summer’s day. How….
I looked up at the dark window again. What was I expecting? That Hannah would appear to me, standing there in her gray dress, looking down? The window was empty. The same window from which on the inside we had watched as the flood had turned our home to an island. Had watched, one dark evening, as a man’s body washed into our yard, turned a circle like doing a trick, and floated away, one arm raised in ironic salute, past the fairgrounds and back to the river.
The rotary phone on the bed stand rang right at seven.
“Mary,” Omer said, “skillet’s hot.”
“Oh, no,” I said, half asleep. “We’re going out. We’re doing Denny’s, at least, you old cheapskate.”
A few minutes later Omer was holding the restaurant door open for me. He was dressed in the same blue suit. The polarized autumn light shone on the saltshakers, making them sparkle like Christmas tree ornaments.
“Well, you must have slept well,” Omer said.
“Oh, I did. I slept very well. Not every day your only brother dies, you know.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“That’s okay, old man.” I grabbed his thin hand. “I was joking.”
“The McLachlans have always been an odd clan,” Omer said.
We signed all the papers between pools of spilled ketchup and salt.
“That’s it, Mary. You’re the sole inheritor of your brother’s estate. The house, the money, it’s all yours, now.”
“Well,” Omer said, lifting the edge of a paper like he was looking under a rug. “I wouldn’t go that far. But you can retire, for sure now.”
“But I’ve just started working.”
We drove into Rapid City. The place hadn’t changed much since the forties. More bars, fewer stores. We drove past the building that used to house Dravlund’s Dry Goods and I remembered the time I had gone in there with Hannah and Lachlan. My brother had insisted on going back to the boot department and staying there. It turned out, upon Hannah’s investigation, that the back wall was lined with nude pin-ups. Her Presbyterian wrath was well ignited.
We pulled up to the Jack Rabbit charter bus station. Omer tried once again.
“Mary, stay with us. We can all drive up together for the service.”
“Omer, I thank you for your kindness, you old scarecrow, but I just want to spend a couple of days by myself at the house, remember old Lachlan in his haunts.”
“I know. The ghosts,” Omer said, “you need them.”
I tapped him on the arm. “You’re catching on quick, old man.”
Still, as Omer’s Buick pulled away from the curb, I felt like I was being left on an island. I could no longer pretend Lachlan would be in Deadwood to greet me. I was going home, to an empty house.
Deadwood is a town you have to be reminded is real. So many bad movies have depicted it as myth—a Dodge City or Tombstone—that you become convinced that it only existed on the back of a studio lot. Not true, not true, the engine of the bus seemed to whine as it ground up Highway 14 into the Gulch.
But as we drove up Lower Main Street, I started to doubt the reality of the place all over again. Things were too shiny—the casinos, the motels, the bright plastic signage. The Deadwood of memory had been a comfortable dump, not this glittery tourist trap that, in the off-season, stuck out like a business suit at a picnic. The streets were empty except for the few who scurried about with customer service smiles on their faces. And beyond the buildings, the Hills themselves had taken on new scars and seemed farther away, as if fifty years had weathered a million’s worth.
And what about you, you ugly old thing?
The bus I rode up on had been filled with bleating gamblers about to get fleeced. As they dispersed toward the fleshpots on Main Street, I took a moment to find my own bearings. The high hills over Lead, to the west, caught my eye. I turned that direction, walking up Sherman past the Adams Museum. At the Baptist Church on Pine I turned left, preferring the zip-zag of backstreets to the clutter of Canam. At the end of Miller I cut cross-country, taking the secret alleys that led to Van Buren that Lachlan had always used as a shortcut home from the saloon. Coming around the corner of the Recreation Center I saw a girl, about ten years old, with a bag of newspapers over her shoulder. She met my stare and held it as we closed on each other.
“Hi,” I said.
She said “Hi” and dropped her head, her dark eyes disappearing under stringy black hair. After she passed me, I stopped and looked back. Hunched under her burden, she looked like an old woman carrying firewood in a fairy tale. I wanted to turn around and carry her bag a few blocks, but the impulse passed, and I finished my trudge up Van Buren to the big house on the corner of Harrison.
Three stories and some high, Lachlan’s house rose above all the others, the last on the southern edge of the Gulch. And unlike everything else in this town, it had been allowed to age gracefully. Curdled paint peeled from its clapboard sides, mossy spots infected its iron-red shingles. But for all that, it was still a mansion. A windowed porch ran along its western side and from there any lounger, on a fall evening like this, could admire the sunset over the mountains.
On the northeast corner of the house, above the front porch, a round tower projected out from the wall, a flagpole jutting from the top of its cone roof. From the curved windows of that tower you could survey the whole town, from the rusty Whitewood Creek that leaked down from Lead to the west, to flank of Mt. Moriah, a few blocks to the east.
I walked across the street and up the wooden front steps and stopped and looked up at the tower above me. What an odd, arrogant house! So much like my grandfather, who built it. I turned the key and opened the door and was met with the slight musk of apples and pipe smoke. Lachlan had only been gone a few days, but the reek of his life was already lifting. For the first time, I started to cry. I had felt a sadness for myself, when I first heard of his death, but this was much different. This was his absence, and only he owned it. I thought of what his death meant to him. To leave his old ways behind.
Lachlan didn’t have a TV. Instead, after he had finished his evening reading, he would sit in his captain’s chair in front of the fire where, beside the tiled hearth, he kept a basket of apples in season. The heat of the flame would slowly bake them, smothering the house with a cidery sweetness. And there he would sit, skinning apples with jackknife and popping the half-baked pieces into his mouth while watching the watery flames.
I stepped through the front entry, past the staircase going upstairs, and entered the parlor, as Lachlan in his Scot’s rectitude called the livingroom. The oak mantel filled the east wall, a coffee table and stuffed chair at right angles to it. The captain’s chair sat to the left of the fireplace, its back to the wall where Lachlan always placed it at the end of the evening. There was a new burst of tears as I looked at it, a retired but still faithful servant.
The house was chilly. I walked through the livingroom, then the diningroom, and into the kitchen to find the wood box. Where the rest of the house was late nineteenth-century with florid wallpaper and hardwood (wainscoting, doors, trim), the kitchen was light and quite large. To my right there was the long counter with a sink and gas range. To the left, a large area where Lachlan had kept a radial arm saw, lathe, and workbench. After he had retired from medicine, he had spent his time cooking, doing carpentry.
I went out onto the back porch and filled my arms with a load of split pine. As I came back into the kitchen I spied the note on the refrigerator. “Just some stuff for these cold mountain mornings,” it said in Omer’s weak hand. Squeezing the wood between my chin and left elbow, I opened the fridge. Bacon, eggs, bread. And some coffee. I almost started to cry all over again. That old bugger—he knew I was determined to stay here and had snuck up the day before with some groceries.
In the next couple of hours I got a fire going, made a pot of coffee, went out and got milk (Omer drank his coffee black), and brought the house back to life. It was only then, just as it was getting dark, that I felt I could face my real duty.
I walked up the stairway to the second floor. The light at the top was brown and dense, the windows at either end of the hall cloaked with old canvas shades. Lachlan’s bedroom was the last one on the right. The door was closed.
I pushed it open and entered. The hazy sunset slanted through the west-facing window. The walls were vertically paneled and white, giving the room the air of a country church. The large four-poster bed that my brother had died in stood against the south wall and against the north wall was a dark walnut bureau. The only other furniture was a chair and plain pine table set in front of the window, an old Royal typewriter and piles of paper on top of it.
I walked into the middle of the room and turned as a mass of bright colors caught my eye. Just to the left of the door, on the east wall behind me, hung a long painting. A scrum of red-legged men, wrapped in plaid blankets, were charging right at me, howling and twirling swords over their heads. I stepped back, and then closer, and then read the brass inscription on the frame underneath.
The Charge of the Clans at Culloden.
Another painting hung to the right of the door, a colored print of blue-clad soldiers surging over a hill, their lives preserved forever as they stumbled toward death. The inscription beneath this one read The Charge of the Minnesota Brigade at Nashville.
On the north wall, above the bureau, hung a huge oil painting. In deep shadow, I had to step closer to see it. Done in an amateur’s hand, it looked like a prairie sunset, with a dark purple foreground and a small patch of orange, front and center. Murky geometries rose from the ground. As I bent closer, the parts came together. The orange was a campfire. The muddy squares in the foreground were cabins and the cones in the back, buttes. The brass label to this one read The Death of Sitting Bull on the Grand River.
I turned to the south wall, above the bed. In full bloom of the sunset there hung what looked like a framed sheet of brown wrapping paper. I moved closer and realized it was a map, an original from the last century. Two feet away, I leaned over the bed and could see it was veined with blue rivers, the names labeled in ink. The thickest one through the middle was the Missouri, and into it from the west ran the Cheyenne. Then, moving north by northwest, the Moreau, Grand, Heart, Little Missouri, and Yellowstone.
Below and to the left was a cluster of humps, the Black Hills.
By now my nose was almost against the glass and I could barely make out another group of symbols—tiny crossed swords pattered like raindrops across the terrain. Beside each was written, in the same inky script, a name.
Slim Buttes, Killdeer Mountain.
Then, as I was about to straighten my back, I noticed something else. Between the Grand and Moreau rivers two shiny dots had been drawn and labeled in pencil. One said Faith, the other Chance. And between these a smaller dot had been punched into the surface with a sharp lead, and crowned with a tiny cross.
I looked around the edge of the frame for a title. When I couldn’t find one, I looked at the map again. Then I saw the scribble in the upper right corner.
The Long Retreat.
I felt a sudden aching sadness for my brother. Childless and vain, Lachlan had decorated his bedroom with the graphics of violence and death, mounting above his own pillow, like a dream-catcher, the lost lands of the Lakota.
I walked over to the desk and picked up a sheaf of papers. Omer had asked me to look for anything that might be “legally significant,” as his own sense of privacy had prevented him from sifting through Lachlan’s writings. (Or his own sense of self-preservation.) The page on the top bore the title “The Long Retreat: Culloden to Wounded Knee, 1756 to 1890.” I sorted through the rest of the handwritten pages and picked one at random. I didn’t have the heart to read it, yet couldn’t resist.
“The scene was hellish. Wet roads and open wounds, and Forrest’s bloodied rearguard greeting Wilson’s triumphant blue troopers with a hail of lead, every turn. The Tennessee high, and fast-rising….”
I sat down on the crocheted spread on the bed. Oh boy, I thought, oh my poor brother. Where had his mind gone, these last few years? And why hadn’t I stayed in closer touch? And what had he been up to, exactly?
I was my brother’s sister, for sure, I thought, as I lay awake that night, trying to get up the strength to go downstairs for an aspirin. The same romanticism infected me, or why else would I have picked the tower to sleep in? After inspecting Lachlan’s bedroom, I had decided that a stiff drink, a full stomach, and some human warmth were more than just called for. So, at about seven o’clock, I wrapped myself in a sweater and walked toward downtown.
At the corner of Main Street, where I had remembered a saloon called Calamity’s, I now found a Perkins. That wouldn’t do, not for a drink, but the night was cold and I wasn’t fussy. After picking through the meatball sandwich with sauce that had come from a soup can, I ordered pie. I was sitting over my third cup of coffee and staring out the window beside my booth when I saw the top of a dark head bobble past down the sidewalk. I got up, dropped a ten on the table, and hurried outside.
The little papergirl was already a block ahead and moving toward Miller and the entrance to alley where I had first seen her. She walked past it and then, at the corner of the Recreation Center, suddenly turned back and stared at me. An impulse made me stop. She held me for a moment, then like a cat plunged into a hedge around someone’s backyard. I ran to the spot—she was gone.
It was after I got home that I had that stiff drink. In the kitchen, above the fridge, I had found Lachlan’s larder of Scotch. I poured a tumbler with ice and took it into the parlor. Twenty minutes later I had a fire blazing that would have done an acre of prairie stubble proud. I even pulled Lachlan’s captain’s chair out of retirement and put it in front of the hearth. Yes, I was Lachlan’s sister, I thought, as I sat in his chair, in front of his fireplace and swirled his Scotch around in his glass. This was as close as I was ever going to get to communion, and allowed myself to succumb. The flames carried me as my mind drifted from my brother to my own ruined family.
Poor Snorri, my long-suffering and insufferable husband, in Saskatchewan somewhere, in a retirement home for old pastors. A pastor let out to pasture? Pudgy and impatient, he had sired, through me, several children and having done that, gone away.
Several children. O god, I thought, I’m glad they can’t sue me. The two boys, what we did to them! First, the names. Snorri had suggested Audun, being Icelandic, and I had liked it. My little angel boy, so fair and so kind. Blonde, and quite serious. But only later, as he disappeared deep into manhood, was the meaning of his name made manifest. The Desolate One.
Then there was Jack. Or, as I had him christened him, Culloden. I twitched every time I thought of that name and it was only now, in my dead brother’s house and under the influence of my dead brother’s whiskey that I understood why I had named him that. It was the thirsty ghost of old history, drunk with blood, that sucked on my family’s veins.
But at least there was Lily. My youngest, my daughter, who was named for a flower. The comfort of my old age, my dark-haired daughter….
I flinched, having fallen asleep. Lily was outside, with her big bag of papers. Could she find her way home, this cold night in October? No, that wasn’t right. Lily was….
Time for bed, you old fool.
Although groggy, I made myself dowse the fire and stir the damp ashes until I was sure it was dead. I left the light in the entryway on, then climbed the stairway to the second floor. It would have been easy enough to occupy one of the four rooms on that floor, but as I stood at the top of the stairs, I noticed the door to the tower on my left. I steadied myself with railing as I made my way to it.
I opened the door on a narrow stairway circling up. At the end I could see stars shining through the curved windows. Warm air whooshed over my ankles. It’ll be like sleeping in a chimney, I thought, all the heat from downstairs funneling upwards. And the starlight!
I pulled myself by the bannister up the stairs and gasped when I got to the top. On three sides the lights of Deadwood Gulch twinkled, the curve of the glass a prism turning them blue and red. Above that the dense black of the mountains loomed down like fate, the stars a faint hope above them.
The room itself was quite spartan, and just to my liking. A twin bed, a pine bureau with a small lamp. A wool throw rug underfoot. I pulled the chain on the lamp and a warm orangey light filled the room. Above the bed the walnut-colored faces of long-dead McLachlans stared down from their oval frames. I turned down the thin quilt on the bed and bent to sniff the sheets. They smelled vaguely laundered, Lachlan being an orderly bachelor. Pulling the lamp switch, I got undressed and crawled into bed.
I didn’t know the hour, but it was sometime later I woke up. My head was splitting from the Scotch and my throat felt coated with cotton. O god, I thought, what a dummy. Now I have to crawl down all those stairs for an aspirin, a glass of cold water. I lay on my back for while, trying to bargain with my body, my conscience on high alert, when something made me sit up. Through the open door a warm draft from downstairs carried with it the whiff of wood smoke. No, I thought, that’s okay. I put that dang fire out. But I got up anyway and went to the door. From two stories below the sound of crackling pine could not be mistaken.
I clung to the banister as I slipped down the stairs. Stopping at the second floor, I sniffed once again. Sweet apples.
Of two minds, I moved slowly. If the house was on fire, I should hurry. If it wasn’t, I shouldn’t go down. At the landing in the entry way I had an odd impulse. I snapped the light off, then peeked into the parlor. In the glow of the streetlight outside on the corner, everything looked as had I left it. The chair sat in front of the cold fireplace. I leaned against the doorjamb for a moment, trying to control my heartbeat. What a dummy!
I switched the entry light back on and went into the parlor. I had pushed the chair back into its place by the wall, hadn’t I? As I stood there, trying to remember, something bumped against the front door. I sank to the floor, then opened my mouth wide, to breath silently, waiting. A moment later there was another bump, then some scratching.
By now I was so scared I could only laugh. You’re dancing to every leaf falling tonight, you old fool! I stood up and walked into the entry and looked out the window. There was nothing there. I opened the door, flush with courage.
A small heap of clothing was huddling against the iron railing to the right of the door. I drew back, then opened the door wider, then reached down and touched what I thought was a shoulder. The little papergirl lifted her head.
“Sweetheart,” I said, “what are you doing out here, all alone? Come in, come in, you must be near freezing.”
She didn’t move, but just kept staring up at me. I bent down beside her. Before I realized it, my hand was smoothing her long greasy hair. And I knew at the moment what I must do and didn’t hesitate. My seventy-year-old arms picked her up and carried her into the parlor. I put her down in Lachlan’s chair and wrapped her in a long coat I fished from the closet. Then I hurried into the kitchen for more firewood, afraid she wouldn’t be there when I got back.
She was. I lit the fire. The flames grew and when I looked up, two brown eyes were staring down at me. I reached out and touched the girl’s knee through her corduroy jeans.
“Okay, sweetie, now I’ll get you something to eat. You like milk? Warm milk? I don’t have any cocoa, though, I don’t think.”
The girl nodded.
I went back to the kitchen and banged around with a saucepan and skillet. The milk warmed as the bacon began to sizzle. I kept looking through the diningroom into the parlor to see she was still there. My guest sat in the chair, staring into the fire. Once she turned her head, caught me peeking. The next time I looked, she was staring into the fire again as if it were telling a story.
“Here you go,” I said, “warm milk and a bacon sandwich.”
She tipped the mug to her mouth, tested it, then took a small sip. She reached for the sandwich and lifted the top slice of bread. Then her skinny brown fingers dug out a strip of hot bacon. After she had taken a bite, her eyes darted up at me and, head tilted to one side, she said, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I knelt on the floor. We were now face to face. “What’s your name, sweetheart?’
She gave me another sidelong glance. “I’m Alice. This is my grandpa’s house. I’ve been waiting for you, grandma. Where have you been?”
A moment after the shadow passed the window, the back door rattled.
“Just a second,” I said, as I turned from the sink. I opened the back door and a basset hound bounded past me and into the diningroom.
“Omer, what the hell?”
The lawyer slipped into the kitchen. He was looking a bit sheepish. “When I handed you over Lachlan’s estate yesterday, I forgot one small detail. The pound called me this morning and said they were going to gas the old General, if I didn’t come pick him up. Here we are.”
“Well, that was sweet of you, old man.” I turned back to the sink. Then over my shoulder I said, “The dog isn’t the only detail you missed, though. There’s another one in the bathtub upstairs, scrubbing away a month’s worth of dirt.”
I made Omer a pot of black coffee to settle him down.
In the upstairs bathroom Alice was blowing into the dirty washcloth that hung from her forehead. “Grandma, I’m ready to get out now,” she said as I came through the door.
I held her by the left elbow as stepped from the tub. The nine inches of water I had carefully measured and tested for warmth had turned into cold soup. While I helped her dry off with the towel, I inspected her small body from behind. She was easily underweight, her legs no thicker than saplings, the skin on her buttocks sagging like an old man’s. I wrapped the towel around her and gave her a squeeze.
“Your clothes will be warm and fresh from the dryer,” I said.
“Thank you, grandma.”
Alice sat on the edge of the bed in the second-floor bedroom where she had slept and pulled on a pair of badly stained socks that had once been white.
“Okay,” I said. “Now let’s go downstairs and meet Uncle Omer.”
The lawyer stood in the middle of the parlor. “Omer Olsen,” he said, extending his hand to Alice as if greeting gentry. “I am delighted to make your acquaintance, young Alice.”
The General galloped into the room and bounced off Omer’s legs. Alice said, “Oooh, a dog,” and reached down to stroke the drumming tail, her eyelids half-closed.
“Well,” Omer said, looking down at the child and dog. “What else do you think Lachlan left us?”
“You’re his lawyer,” I said. “All I know is last night I was alone, and this morning I’ve got a menagerie here.”
Omer shook his head. “I had no idea. Lachlan was one of several clients, but clearly my favorite.” He bent down. “What is your last name, Alice? Can you tell me?”
By now Alice had hold of the General’s ears and were giving each a good scratch. The dog was sitting flat on its butt, its tongue hanging loose. He looked quite content.
“My name’s Alice.”
“Yes, I know, dear. But what’s your last name? Your dad’s name, dear?”
“He’s a gambler.”
“Okay. How about your mom? Everyone has a mom,” Omer said, glancing at me.
“My other grandma’s name was Katie Killsplenty. Her grandpa was a big chief.”
“I see,” Omer said. “And your mommy?”
“I’m so sorry,” Omer said. “So who do you live with, right now?”
Alice looked at me, and pointed.
“Yes, I know,” Omer said. “But before?”
“I lived with the fosters.”
“Thank you, Alice, that’s very helpful.” Omer straightened up and walked into the dining room. He turned to me as I followed. “I’ll make some calls, Mary. Give me an hour or two.” His foggy gray eyes had an odd intensity.
“What is it, old man?” I asked.
“You know, if I dig up a family for this child, and it turns out Lachlan was mixed up in this, whatever it is, there could be a substantial claim on the estate.”
“Just like a lawyer, worry about the legal ramifications first.”
“Well, it’s sort of what we do.”
“If this girl is kin, she deserves her fair share.”
“Took you long enough to make up your mind about that,” Omer said, grinning.
A couple of hours later the lawyer set a bag of groceries on the kitchen counter with a thud.
“Coffee time?” I asked.
We cleared away the routers and saws and sat down at the kitchen table.
“So?” I asked.
“Well, it was a lot easier than I imagined, once I solved the mystery.”
“What mystery was this?”
“Well, when she said she lived with the fosters, I naturally thought she meant, with a foster family. So I called all the family services offices, the County and the Catholics, and nobody had heard of the kid. Then I thought, ah hah, and looked in the phone book, and started calling all the Fosters I saw there. Sure enough, third call, a family of Fosters, live down on Railroad. Yep, that’s the kid, they said. Lachlan was paying us sixty bucks a week to look after her, and by the way, do you know where she is?”
“Then it’s true, she’s my great-niece?”
“Well, she was something to Lachlan, or at least he suspected she might be. Foster says Lachlan brought her over about six weeks ago. Said she had been dropped at his door by some guy from ‘up North.’ “
“Up north could mean anywhere.”
“Foster says Lachlan seemed kind of confused, he was slipping by then, but he said the guy was from some reservation where he used to work.”
“It fits, I guess. Lachlan used to work for the BIA. He’d travel to Standing Rock, on the North Dakota border, back in the fifties.”
“Yeah, I knew that. So, I called the Office of Vital Statistics, in Pierre, where I got a connection. Asked me who I was looking for, and I said, ‘some gambler.’ That’s what the child said, right? Lo and behold, there’s a record for an Alice Gambler, born December 15, 1995, in Mobridge. Seemed a close match, given her age.”
“Mobridge? Didn’t even know they had a hospital, there.”
“Well, they do. Father’s name was listed as Dexter Gambler, mother’s name Sheila Killsplenty. Then I checked her birth certificate. Sheila’s mother was a Katherine Killsplenty, no father listed.”
Omer looked into his coffee cup, but before I could ask another question, he continued. “I also had them check the death records. My gal in Pierre had a death certificate for Sheila—20 October, 1987. And there’s one for Katherine, too. 15 October, of this year.”
“So, she must’ve been living with her grandmother, and when she died, her dad dropped her off here?”
“That’s my conclusion.”
“And no record for the grandfather?”
Omer shook his head.
I braced my elbows against the table and took a deep breath. “The old bastard.”
“The old bastard had a bastard, pardon my French.”
“Don’t say that. A child can’t help who her parents are. So this Foster, what else did he say?”
“Says his wife was a patient of Lachlan’s. Owed your brother money, so did him this favor.”
“For sixty buck a week? Omer, the kid’s skin and gristle.”
Omer winced. “I was pretty mad, too, until I met the guy. They just got kicked off welfare, with three kids of their own. They were eating on odds jobs, the kids delivering papers, and what they were getting for Alice.”
“So why’d she come here?”
“Foster says that after Lachlan died, he told Alice her grandpa from that big house on the hill had passed away. He told her that someone from his family would come and get her. Other than that, he didn’t know what to do. Lachlan had made no provision to keep paying him, and Foster couldn’t afford to feed her, not on his own. Said he was about to take her down to Child Services, when she disappeared.”
“How long ago was this?”
“A good couple of weeks.”
“But I saw her the night I arrived. She was down the alley, delivering papers.”
Omer shrugged. “Foster might not be entirely reliable in this regard.”
I got up and walked to the sink, then back to the table. “So, what do I do?”
“What do you want to do?”
“Okay,” Omer said, “but it could get messy. The tribes don’t take kindly to outsider adoptions. Kids and dogs, they just love them.” He shook his head, slapped his palm on the table. “But that’s what you pay me the big bucks for.”
I sat down at the table. From our position, we could see Alice in the parlor. She was pulling the General by the collar, trying to get him to stand on all fours.
“I’m taking her to the doctor, this afternoon,” I said.
Omer nodded. “Did Lachlan work on any other reservations?”
“Not that I know of, thank god.”
“Yes.” Omer was still staring into the parlor.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I found out something else, was pretty interesting. Katie Killsplenty was the granddaughter of Rain-in-the-Face, friend of old Sitting Bull, and a great warrior in his own right.” Omer nodded toward Alice. “That little girl’s great-great-granddad just might have been the man that killed Custer.”
As much as I hated to, that evening I was back in Lachlan’s bedroom, at his table, paging through his manuscript in the lamplight.
I had been a better persuader than Omer. The old lawyer had agreed to spend the night with us in the house on Harrison instead of driving back up from Rapid for the memorial in the morning. I cooked up some hamburger patties for supper. Alice scraped the onions of the top of burger and piled them like earthworms on the edge of her plate before diving into the patty itself. Omer took a few stabs at the boiled potatoes and declared himself full. Afterwards he went into the parlor and fell asleep on the couch in front of the fire. Alice and the General, stoked up on beef, ran circles around him.
I turned over several dozen pages of yellow paper covered in purple typewritten letters till I found one with a title on top that said, “Faith, or Chance?”
“By now I’m clearly dead, although I can’t comprehend it. Anyway, what did Faulkner say? We wear out life long before we wear out the possibilities of living? I should know, I’ve watched many a patient expire from cancer, heart attack, old age, and just plain dropping dead. To what higher court should I protest my place in this endless and inevitable rotation?
A few years ago I retired from my medical practice. With nothing to do, I decided to study military history, and I started with my own family. Noted cowards, we had only served in one battle since we turned tail at Culloden (in 1746), and that was Nashville (in 1864). I was thinking about Grandpa Charles singular Civil War exploit as I was walking home along Sherman one day, pondering how a street in a small town in the Dakotas was named for a Civil War general, and how that Civil War general was named for a great Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.
By the time I got home and to my desk, the chain of referral going on in my head had led me to Sitting Bull, great holy man of the Hunkpapa. And to my days as a doctor on the Standing Rock Reservation. The road to Standing Rock led, in turn, along the remnants of the Bismarck-Deadwood trail. And just off that trail, to the east of the old stagecoach station on Rabbit Creek, was the extinct town of Chance.
I stopped there one evening on my way back. It had been a beautiful summer’s evening and as I looked to the southwest I could almost imagine the Black Hills, though the black band on the horizon could well have been storm clouds. Hot days on the prairies often ended that way. But what I did see was Bear Butte, outside Sturgis. Spirit Mountain to the Lakota, and the place where Crazy Horse was christened, it stood a lone sentinel of the Hills beyond it.
I pulled up to the gate of the Chance Cemetery, the only thing still left of whatever village there was, and looked around. Here were my ancestors, planted forever in the sandy soils that had begrudged them in life a scant living. And as I wandered around those old headstones, on that hot July evening, I thought, “What a wicked trick this all is. To be born, just to die. And to buried in Chance.”
And I thought of the Preacher, what he would say: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” And, I might add, a big crapshoot.
I left, feeling wobbly, not used in my Presbyterian soul to outbreaks of spiritual fervor. But I calmed down as I drove into Faith, the next real town down the road, where I turned west toward the Hills, lifting my eyes unto my salvation, and neat glass of Scotch at the end of the day. Would a God be so obvious, to plant such a clue? Why not, and where better, where nobody went?
Faith, or Chance?”
I put the pages down, and it wasn’t until then I realized I had been grinding my teeth. No mention of the Indian woman he had impregnated forty years ago? No mention of parents, his aunt, his sister? Just a self-absorbed diatribe that read like a high school sophomore’s paper?
I walked into the kitchen and surprised Omer standing in front of the open fridge. The tufts of gray hair on the back of his neck and ears, and the gnarled toenails on his feet, made him look like a large baby eagle from the back.
“Could you do with a Scotch, old man?” I asked, offering him the bottle I had come back from upstairs with.
“Oh, no. Just looking for a little ice cream, maybe.”
“If you didn’t buy any, there ain’t any in there.”
Omer looked at the bottle in my hand. “That’s not a problem, is it?”
I took a swig. “No problem at all.” Then I put the bottle back in the cupboard and closed the door. “I’ll go get some ice cream, if I can find a place that’s still open.”
“And some root beer, while you’re at it? That would make a nice float.”
“God, you’re worse than the kid, old man. But anyway, I need the walk, and the dog, he might need to poop.”
“Can I go with you, Grandma?” Alice asked. “Take General with me?”
“Sure, but we’ll have to put him on leash, keep him from running away.”
“Back to the pound?”
“To a certain death? I doubt it.”
I tied one of Lachlan’s size 46 belts around the General’s collar, and we all headed out the door. As we paused at the end of the sidewalk, Omer called from the front door, his hair a gray halo under the porch light.
“Get vanilla,” he called, “I could never stand chocolate.”
We stood still for a moment, the General tugging at the belt in Alice’s hand.
“The Red Owl will be closed,” I said.
“There’s a little store, that way,” Alice said, pointing north up Van Buren.
“You would know, wouldn’t you, sweetie. Lugging all those papers around.”
“They were soooo heavy!”
“What were you doing, by the way, a few days ago? I saw you after the Fosters said you had left.”
“I was still there, they just couldn’t tell.”
I stared at the little girl for a moment, but there was no clue in her expression. Then we walked to the corner of Van Buren and Lincoln, the General lugging Alice up the street on the end of his improvised leash. The store on the corner had a long-empty look to it, the poster in the door advertising Deadwood Days from several years past.
“Looks like they went out of business,” I said. “Guess we’ll have to report back to Omer, mission not accomplished.”
“I’m sorry, Grandma. This store’s always open.”
“In another dimension, maybe. You cold? Let’s go home.”
But the General was tugging on Lachlan’s belt. He wanted to seek higher ground. I looked east, up Lincoln, to the shoulder of cold Mt. Moriah.
“I wonder how Wild Bill’s doing tonight . He’s buried up there, you know. Want to see?”
Alice nodded, then lurched as the General tugged on the belt.
We climbed a couple of blocks past the last houses, then reached the small parking lot at the base of the mountain. The visitors’ booth was shuttered, the turnstile in the gate to the graveyard locked.
“I guess we’re out of luck,” I said. “Last time I was here, there was just a sidewalk.” I turned back.
Alice stopped me. “There’s a hole in the fence, over there,” she said, pointing to the north end of the visitors’ station.
“How do you know that?”
“I know all the gaps, around here.”
Alice was right. Upon further investigation I found a space between the end of the building and that of the fence. I took the belt from Alice and looped it through the wrought-iron railing. “It’s bad enough we’re sneaking into the cemetery, I don’t think we should take a dog with us. He might poop on somebody’s grave.”
Alice slipped through the opening, and I squeezed in after. As we walked away, the General let loose a long mournful bay. Alice went back and knelt down beside him. She whispered in his ear, stroking his back. The General quieted down. When Alice came back, I asked, “What’d you say to him?”
“I told him not to worry, we’re going to come back.”
“Oh, he thought he was being abandoned. I get that.”
“So do I,” Alice said.
We climbed the asphalt path, graves all around us. “This bother you?” I asked.
“No, why should it?”
“True,” I said. “You’ve got a long time to wait till you’re a resident here. Me, not so much.”
Alice slipped her hand into mine. “Don’t worry, Grandma. You just got to use your imagination.” And suddenly I understood the basis of every religion. “You’re right,” I said, “from the mouth of mere babes.”
Alice shrugged, and pulled me along. At a curve in the trail we had out-walked the last street light and stopped, looking around.
“Didn’t come very prepared,” I said. “Don’t even have a flashlight.”
“It’s okay, Grandma. They’re right over there.”
We walked a little ways up the trail. The graves lay at eye level in two shallow enclosures protected by thin woven wire. Vandals and winter had taken their toll, but the pine trees were parted and enough moonlight shone down for me to read the granite markers inside. The one over the grave in the lower enclosure read Wild Bill, and beneath that, James Butler Hickok. The upper one read Calamity Jane, and beneath that, Martha Canary Burke.
“There he is,” I said, “Wild Bill. And his reputed girlfriend, Calamity Jane.”
“What’s reputed mean?’
“Means it was a rumor, not necessarily true. I don’t think she really knew him that well.”
“Is that why they weren’t buried together?”
“Yes, that’s probably right. Old Bill had a wife back east. He’d come to Deadwood to gamble, and makes lots of money for her. You see, he was dying—”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Alice and she let go my hand. I sat down on the ledge. A few flakes of halloween snow spun around me. It was fifty years ago since I’d sat in this very place. The young man’s name escaped me, but not his smell. Warm and salty, like a barnyard, almost. We kissed for a while and then, weary with lust, had come up for air. “You believe in ghosts?” he had asked, looking at the graves. I looked at Alice shivering in her thin cotton jacket.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked.
She was silent. What a stupid thing to say to a kid. In a graveyard, on a dark snowy mountain.
“People don’t really go, I know that,” Alice said.
I pulled her little head against the front of my coat and stroked her shimmering hair. Oh, people go all right, and thank goodness for it.
The General was where we had left him. As we got closer, he turned his head toward us, then growled.
“What’s gotten into you?” I said, bending down. “It’s like we surprised him.”
Alice scratched behind the dog’s ears. “He’s okay. He just didn’t smell us.”
“That’s strange. Bassett’s are known for their incredible noses.”
We walked home, down Lincoln, the General waddling ahead, sticking his nose into every bush and cranny. “Seems to be smelling just fine now,” I said.
We turned on Van Buren and stopped in front of the old house on Harrison. “Alice?” I asked. “What made you come to the door, the other night. You ran and hid when I tried to talk to you, before.”
Alice chewed on her lower lip. Her hands her drawn into the sleeves of her jacket, only her fingertips sticking out. “I wasn’t sure it was all right, Grandma.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Grandpa. He did.”
I looked into her dark eyes. “And how did he do that?”
“He let me know it was okay to knock on his door. I followed you, and kept watch, over there.” She pointed at a hedge around the house across Harrison. “The lights went off, and I didn’t know if you were sleeping. Then Grandpa waved, and I knew it was okay.”
I could hardly speak. “Where’d you see Grandpa?”
Alice pointed to the bedroom window in the tower. “Up there.”
All my life I’ve wondered what it would be like to wake up, a changed person. And at the age of seventy, I finally discovered. The first thing I heard was Omer shuffling down the hallway to the bathroom. I pulled the pillow over my head. Alice was still asleep, tucked in beside me. If I had to explain the arrangement, I’d say she got scared and crawled in with me. Truth be told, it was the other way around.
Moments later I heard Omer shuffle down the stairs. I got up. Eight o’clock—the service was scheduled for noon. As I crossed the hall to the bathroom, I looked sideways toward the door to the tower. It was shut tight, like I’d left it. My bed was still unmade from the night before, but it could stay that way. I wasn’t going back up there, not alone.
By the time I was through with the bathroom, the smell of breakfast had curled up the stairway. I went back into the room and got dressed. Alice and the General were just stirring.
“Hey, sleepy head. Time for bacon!”
Omer was flipping things on the stove when I walked into the kitchen. Plates of fried potatoes and bacon were already on the table.
“How did you ever manage to live so long, old man,” I said. “You eat nothing but meat and potatoes.”
“It’s the coffee, and all the sweets that go with it.”
Alice came in behind me and filled her plate with crisp bacon.
“How’s our young carnivore, this morning,” Omer asked.
Alice’s dark head was bowed over the plate. If she heard the remark, she didn’t let on. I stood at the sink with a cup of coffee and stared out the window. The day was bright and cold, the wind out of Wyoming. Perfect weather for wearing new skin. I turned around and watched Omer try to scrape some eggs from the skillet. He was wearing a suit, vest, and pants, and an Arrow dress shirt from out of the sixties. As I stared at him I realized that he was as much a Black Hill’s landmark as Harney Peak. But he wasn’t going to last nearly so long, and so much of my life would disappear with him.
Or, that’s how I would’ve felt last night. Today, all bets were off.
“Okay, we got us some fried eggs. Hope you like them hard,” Omer said.
Alice looked up, shook her head.
“Plop them my plate, old man,” I said. “I know what it cost you to make them.”
We reached the Cease Funeral Home with fifteen minutes to spare. There were still tears in the corner of Alice’s eyes from listening to the General bay from the porch at our leaving. We entered the anteroom off the foyer. A dark-suited man stuck out a thick hand.
“Ed Cease, director,” he said. “Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Olsen, so sorry for your loss.” Then he bent down to shake Alice’s hand. “And who do we have here?”
“My name’s Alice. My grandpa’s that dead guy.”
Cease lifted his eyes to Omer, who calmly stared back. Then he ushered us into the sanctuary and seated us in the front row. A polished urn sat on a pedestal in front of the altar. Organ music oozed from the curtain in the back of the room.
“Lachlan’s looking quite dapper,” I said.
Omer smiled. “Always held a nice shine, that man did.”
At about five after noon Ed Cease entered the sanctuary from a door behind the altar and looked down the rows of empty chairs. He paused for a moment, then opened the service book. As he was about to read, I jumped from up from my seat.
“Hang on!” I picked up my brother’s urn and squeezed it like a rag doll. “Can’t you see? There’s nobody here. Nobody even came to his funeral, not even the Fosters!”
Omer came over and hugged me. I pressed my head against his chest. It smelled like mothballs. I cried for a while, then lifted my head. “Oh god,” I said, “I’m so stupid.”
Ed Cease gingerly took the urn from me. “Mrs. Johnson, no need to apologize. Shall we continue?”
I looked down at Alice. She was sitting by herself on the pew, tears spilling down her brown cheeks. Omer stood over her, one hand resting lightly on her head, as if he were about to baptize her.
“No, Mr. Cease. Just give me those ashes. I got a better idea.”
In the vacant parking lot I told Omer my plan. He looked worried, then sighed. “I’ll have to call Gina. She’s going to think we’re having an affair, all the time I’m spending up here with you.”
“We are, old man, or haven’t you noticed?” I turned to Alice. “Are you up for a car ride?”
“Can General come?”
“Oh, the General has to come. We need a choir.”
Forty-five minutes after one we pulled into Francis’ Family Dining in Sturgis. We could see the edge of the Hills through the plate glass windows beside our booth. The thin sunlight made me feel drowsy.
“Coffee, and a lettuce salad for me,” I said to the waitress.
“I’ll have mashed potatoes, and the hamburger soup,” Omer said. “And just haul the coffee urn over, set it up at the table.” Then he looked at Alice, who was sitting across from him. “And bring the kid a side of beef.”
“Could I have a burger, please, and a Coke?” Alice asked.
“Make it the works,” I said. “She needs her vegetables.”
When the food came, Alice began the slow and deliberate process of extracting the meat from the lettuce, tomato, and bun of the burger.
“Sweetheart, eat a pickle, at least,” Omer said. “You need some greens.”
“Looks who’s talking,” I said. “You only eat browns.”
“Could we get some scraps for General?” Alice asked.
Back in the car, on the way out of town, Omer buzzed the front window down. A cool wave of air washed over us. “Feel that?” Omer said. “A Chinook. Welcome to the Banana Belt, as we like to call it. Don’t like the weather? Wait another five minutes.”
After the last whiff of beagle fart had faded away, Omer closed the window. I looked in the back seat. The General lay with his chin on Alice’s lap. He met my gaze with sad heavy eyes. “Garbage gives me gas, I can’t help it,” he seemed to be saying.
We drove north toward Newell, out of Sturgis, passing Bear Butte on our right. Then we were out on the open range, nothing but wind between North Dakota and us. And as it blew, the wind worked the grasses like a hand brushing suede.
The prairie is deceptive, I thought, as I looked out across it. From the air, it’s an abstraction, a space between tangible places. But on the ground you realize it’s a metaphor. It’s our lives, that stretch on forever, and at some point, peter out.
“Omer, are you a religious man? I don’t think I’ve ever asked you before.”
“Nope,” he said. “Lutheran. What makes you ask?”
“What do you think about all this? Living, dying? Think its all a big crap shoot?”
“Well, the one thing I remember from Sunday School is the just shall live by faith.”
“Yeah, well, everyone knows that one. But the argument is circular. How do you become just, in the first place, unless you have faith? Otherwise, why not just fuck some Indian woman?” I glanced into the backseat. Alice was napping.
“It’s a question of grace, I guess,” Omer said. “By grace we make our way through the garden.”
“Grace? That’s like manna. Dissolves the moment you put your tongue to it.”
“Well, then, here’s another quote, from old Brother Martin. Was on a needlepoint pillowcase, my mother brought from the old country. Was in Norwegian, but the gist is the same. If the world were to end tomorrow, I’d still plant my apple tree.”
I smiled. “Omer, when you’re done lawyering, you might want to consider a career as a pastor. The good shepherd, you know?”
“Really? I thought that’s what I was. Each believer, a priest. And that’s Luther, too.”
The light was lengthening into midafternoon. It would be dark by five. The signs along the highway spelled familiar names—Maurine, Mud Butte—but there were no longer any towns attached. I was sleeping, I guess, when I heard the announcement.
“Here we are,” Omer said. “Faith, South Dakota.”
We stopped at the one intersection. I pointed north. “That way, I remember. That’s the way up to Chance.”
My memory told me the place was about thirty miles north of the turn off, but now I was feeling panicky as I watched the buttes and gullies glide by, trying to find a familiar landmark. It was like trying to track a single wave in the ocean.
Then, suddenly. “There, Omer, that one!” I pointed at a perfect cone growing out of the landscape to the west. “That’s Arrowhead Butte. Now, if I’m right, we should soon see the river.”
“Used to call those things squaw tits,” Omer said.
“Stop it,” I said. “There it is.” At the bottom of the next draw, a rusty iron bridge crossed a washout. A trickle of water worked its way between mud-crusted banks.
“The mighty Moreau,” Omer said.
“Now, over there,” I said. “Thunder Butte should be showing up soon.” As I spoke, another cone of earth flitted across the rolling horizon, this time to the east. “Okay, five miles, and then we turn left.”
We were close now. We rattled over the metal slats of a cattle guard at the next rise and could see a smaller road wind off to the left. A windmill, fanning its tail like a carp, cast a blue shadow across yellow grass. We turned up the trail, paused for a procession of tawny cattle to pass on their way to salt lick and water.
“Those are charolais,” I said. “Cross bred with angus and hereford.”
“I’m impressed,” said Omer. “You know your potatoes. When’s the last time you were out here?”
“When’s the last time anyone was? About fifty years ago, when we buried old Hannah.”
“Are we on the reservation?” Alice asked, from the back. “This looks like my Indian grandma’s place.”
“No, sweetheart, we’re not anywhere. There it is!” I said, as we came over a hill.
The valley creased and rolled, and formed a small knoll. On the rise were what looked like a cluster of wooden crates set on their ends, surrounded by a woven wire fence. Russian olive and Chinese elm grew along it. We drove up to the gate. Chance Cemetery, the iron words read.
Omer put the car into park, and then waited. I looked at the graveyard, then at Omer, then at Alice, in back. The General stirred. “Well,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
Omer unwrapped the urn from the blanket that rested between us. “Just a second, Mary. I have something else.” He took a cassette from his pocket. “The Pipes of the Royal Scots Guards. Shall we play it?”
I leaned across the seat and gave the old lawyer a kiss on his cheek. Omer pushed the cassette into the player and the reedy strains of The Dream Angus rattled the dash. It’s a good thing that Lachlan’s been cremated, I thought. Otherwise he’d be rolling in his grave. The Royal Scots Guard fought with the Butcher of Cumberland at Culloden.
I got out of the car. Omer handed me the urn. Then he opened the backdoor and freed all the prisoners. The General ran around the car once, then took off along the fence line, around the edge of the cemetery. Alice looked after him.
“Shoo!” Omer said. “Go get him. Just watch out for rattlesnakes.”
“Too late in the season,” I said, and opened the gate. We walked under the arch and into the center of the graveyard where several stones stood in a ragged half-circle. The first one bore the name John McLachlan. Next to him was Elizabeth Mackenzie McLachlan. Next to her lay my father, Charles McLachlan, and my mother Mary.
I bent to kiss my mother’s name. Sixty years later, the emptiness was still there. I moved to the next stone. Hannah McLachlan Cronk. I set the urn down on top of it, then looked at Omer. He nodded. I picked up the urn, and opened the top.
“Good-bye,” was all I said as I poured the ashes into the wind. They funneled like a small tornado, then scattered into the sky. I was numb. I wanted to gather the ashes together, try again. Wanted to say something kinder, deeper. I felt like I had hung up the receiver on my brother, abruptly, for the very last time.
Omer stood watching. Then, after a moment, he started to sing. “Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie, where the coyotes howl, so mournfully….”
In the distance the General began to bellow.
The laughter started small, then exploded. Omer looked at me, amazed.
“I’m sorry, Mary. Did I offend you?”
“No, old man. It’s perfect. A man works his whole life for fortune and fame. Tries to rewrite history itself, and what does he get for a funeral? A basset and a lawyer, singing duet.”
“You put it that way, it’s very sad.”
“No, no it’s not. It’s just one more lesson, he has to learn.”
“I can’t remember the rest of the words.”
“Come on,” I said, tucking the urn in the crook of my arm. “Let’s check out the neighbors.”
We walked around the edge of the cemetery, the stones scoured smooth by a century of swirling sand. Old wreaths and sagebrush heaped up against them.
“Any Olsens in this crew?” I asked.
“No, they’re all buried near Usta. Or they used to be,” Omer said. He stopped in front of a row of stone half-hidden by dead lilacs.
“Louis Kossuth Wilson. I remember this family. Had a ranch, over Rabbit Creek. A winter camp up on the Grand River.”
“Yes, I remember. Had six, seven daughters. My aunt Hannah, she knew them.”
Omer raised his eyes as if scanning the horizon for riders. “I remember the time he beat up the Sheriff, on the Main Street of Sturgis. Sheriff was egging on Wilson at the barbershop over him hiring some ex-cons on his ranch. Deputy who witnessed it said, there they were, two biggest men in the Black Hills, going at it.”
“A liberal who can throw a punch. I like that,” I said.
Omer pointed at the next stone. “And there’s his wife Sarah.”
I looked at the old lawyer as he stood in his green trench coat in the sunlight. There were still traces of straw in his soot-colored hair. His face and hands looked carved from diamond willow, the color of the earth all around him.
You’re fading into the picture, old man. Then I looked down at my own hands, camouflaged against the brown earth.
We walked back to the car. The Royal Scots were playing The Yellow-Haired Laddie. I looked around—no Alice. “Where’s the others?” I asked.
“There they are,” Omer said, pointing to a spot a hundred yards to the southwest.
“Alice Gambler!” I yelled. “We’re leav-ing.”
Alice turned and stood for a minute like a ground squirrel, listening. Then she ran toward us. The General was chasing her, seesawing like a rocking horse through the high grass. He caught up with Alice, nipped her sleeve, then raced on ahead, his stubby legs churning.
Alice screamed. “I’m going to catch you, you farty-ass dog!”
In the distance Bear Butte was a bump, the Black Hills a shadow beyond it.