Read an Excerpt
In the arid summer heat on prairie rangeland, a dead body doesn’t so much rot as it becomes petrified. The blazing sun and dry wind burn the most resilient flesh into dried meat.
What the sun hadn’t cooked the animals had feasted on. A sunken hollow where the stomach had been. Shriveled flaps of skin resembling jerky hung from the jaw and cheekbones. The eye sockets were empty holes. The final indignity? The crotch of the athletic shorts were ripped away to reach the soft meat of the sex organs.
Poor son of a bitch had been emasculated before he’d had a chance to become a man.
A hot breeze swirled chalky dust motes and scents of decay.
Black Air Jordan athletic shoes saved the boy’s toes the fate of his fingers: gnawed off clean down to the bone. Reddish-black hair floated loose around his skull, bits of leaves and insects trapped in the dulled strands. Without lips to hide behind, the crooked teeth stuck out like yellowed piano keys. The body hadn’t been exposed long enough to bleach the bones white, but it’d been out here long enough to disintegrate into just another forgotten animal carcass.
Dust to dust.
Pine-tree-dotted hills and valleys of grayish gumbo made up the barren landscape. Heat mirages shimmered in the distance—a cruel illusion. There’d been no standing water in these parts for years.
The spinal column listed to the left. Like the kid’s neck had been snapped.
Despite the sun beating down, a chill rippled through the air.
So how had Albert Yellow Boy ended up in the middle of nowhere? What were the odds a couple of busy ranch hands would stumble over his body in this remote section of fallow grazing land?
Had that been the intention?
More voices buzzed like angry gnats. Whispering. Arguing. Accusing.
Eerily loud caws echoed from the canyon. Bickering ceased, returning focus to tending the rituals of the dead.
© 2010 Lori Armstrong
One week later
Listening to bawling cows headed for the slaughterhouse is a shitty way to start a day.
I slammed the front window shut and crawled back between the cool cotton sheets. When my father’s phantom voice nagged me for sleeping in, I jerked the quilt over my head.
Go away, Dad. I’m too damn old to feel guilty about not getting up at the crack of dawn to do chores.
It took me a while to get back to sleep. When I did drift off, the scorching summer afternoon from thirty years past came rushing back, dreamlike, except it hadn’t been a dream:
“Momma had a baby and its head popped off.” I sited my target and pulled the trigger.
An immediate pain-filled screech morphed into prairie silence.
My heart thumped. I held the Remington tight even after the recoil pad bit into my shoulder. Heard the hollow click as the spent brass cartridge ejected out the side and chinked on the rocky ground.
Bluish smoke eddied around me. Gravel dug into my forearms. Powdery gray dirt coated my sunburned skin even as gnats buzzed around my ears and inside my nose.
I didn’t care.
Exhilarated, I eyed the headless body through the scope and surveyed the bloody chunks of meat spread across the soil in the ultimate buzzard’s buffet.
“Got ya dead-on, ya dirty bastard,” I whispered to the decimated prairie dog, my tone reminiscent of Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Dad chuckled, shifting his position on the slope. “Your mom’d have a conniption fit if she heard you talkin’ like that.”
“Then it’s a good thing she’s not here.”
“Yeah.” He squinted at me, finding something on my face that made the laughter bleed out of his eyes. “Real good thing.”
A clement breeze stirred the smell of sage, skunkweed, and hot dirt. Scents I’d forevermore associate with death.
He eased back on his haunches and stood, wincing. The lack of circulation in his legs was getting worse, though he tried to be a tough guy and hide it from me. I let him. When he held out his big hand to help me up, I let him do that, too.
“Come on, sport. Let’s see what damage you done. You ain’t a bad shot—”
“For a girl,” I supplied.
He spit a stream of tobacco juice next to my ropers. Just like my hero, Josey. He looked me dead in the eye. “Anyone who ever says that to you, Mercy Gunderson, is a fool.”
I woke with a start. At least the combat flashbacks had tapered off, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a decent night’s sleep. Maybe I should fill that prescription for Ambien next time I was at the VA.
After I’d finished my yoga practice, I wandered outside. The thermometer read 87 degrees. In the shade. I snagged a Crystalyx feed cap off the hook by the door and detoured to the activity by the barn.
The semitruck was backed up to the loading gate. Flies buzzed everywhere. Familiar, pungent smells of dirt and manure hung in the dry air. Most people gagged at the odors, but I’d gotten used to them again, the scents of home. I hoisted myself atop the fence and watched the action unfold.
Our two hired men, TJ and Luke, were on horseback, herding the animals. The ranch foreman, Jake, culled the ones he wanted and sent the others out of the penning area with a slap on the flank.
One stubborn cow refused to move.
Jake bent down and spoke directly into the floppy ear.
The tail swished and then the cow slowly got in line.
I laughed. How cool. We had our very own cow whisperer. I would’ve zapped it with a cattle prod until it bellered and trotted up the ramp like a good little doggie.
Another obvious difference between Jake and me.
After the metal door to the chute banged shut, and the semi rattled down the rutted driveway, the foreman ambled toward me.
Jake Red Leaf had run my father’s ranch for the last twenty-odd years. Jake wasn’t a grizzled old Indian rancher, but fairly young, around forty-five. Despite spending years outside in the harsh elements, he’d aged well and was a good-looking man, so it surprised me he was still single.
What didn’t surprise me, or anyone else, was that Jake knew the day-to-day operations of the Gunderson Ranch better than I did. Better than I’d ever wanted to.
I shifted my position atop the rickety fence. The wooden slats scraped my palms. I’d probably spend half the damn night digging slivers out.
“Nice to see you out in the fresh air and sunshine.”
“Yeah, ’cause I so don’t get enough of it being stationed in the world’s biggest sandbox.”
Ignoring my barb, Jake tipped back his battered Resistol and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the heel of his hand. His eyes caught mine. “How’s Hope today?”
“Your grandma says she checked on her at seven and Hope was still in bed.”
“Was Levi around?”
“I doubt it. Why? Was he supposed to be working today?”
“Yep. Promised to help me load cattle.”
Levi was my younger sister’s fifteen-year-old son. As much as I’d adored him as a baby, his wide-eyed wonder, his drooly smiles, his gurgling coos of contentment whenever I held him, these days he steered clear of me. If his recent behavior was any indication, the kid was about half a step from ending up in the juvenile court system.
Hope blamed Levi’s bad behavior on Levi’s daddy dying in a trucking accident when the boy was six. I blamed Levi’s bad behavior on Levi. Other kids had lost a parent at a young age—Hope and myself included. Hope believed in giving Levi free reign. My mind-set? If Jake or one of the other ranch hands took a horse rein to him, he’d straighten up in a helluva hurry.
However, my opinion held no weight. I’d been an absent aunt most of Levi’s life, as well as an absent sister. Add in the fact I’ve never given birth? Well, I’d be better off talking to a fence post.
“You act surprised he didn’t show,” I said.
“Not really. He’s been runnin’ with a rough crowd from the rez lately. Chet said he saw Levi and a buncha boys in the back of a pickup headed up toward that abandoned mine a coupla weeks back.” Jake placed a worn Tony Lama on the bottom rung and propped his muscled forearms on the fence.
“Who were the boys?”
“Dunno. Some punks. Someone oughta talk to him about it. Especially in light of the fact we found his buddy Albert chewed up as coyote food in our pasture last week.”
“Count me out for initiating that conversation. Hope has never listened to me, and she’s completely blind where that kid is concerned.”
“Funny. Your dad used to say the same thing. Of course, Wyatt wore those same rose-colored glasses when it came to his only grandson.”
A black veil dropped over me as if a hail cloud covered the sun. I released a slow breath. “Don’t know if I’ll ever get used to hearing Dad referred to in the past tense. Maybe—”
“Stop beatin’ yourself up. Nothin’ you coulda done.”
“I can’t believe I wasn’t here.”
“He wouldn’t have known if you had been.”
“That doesn’t make me feel less guilty, Jake.”
He cocked his head and looked up at me. “You talked to anybody about it?”
“Like one of them doctors at the VA hospital. Unci says you been goin’ there since you got back from Iraq, eh?”
Damn Sophie Red Leaf and her big mouth. Had she ever considered maybe I didn’t want everyone to know about my health problems? Especially her grandson?
I didn’t respond. Instead, I tipped my face to the heavens. My eyes traced a long white vapor trail bisecting the vivid blue sky. I half wished I was on that plane, gazing wistfully at the patchwork of fields and farms from thirty thousand feet.
“Mercy? You okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll see you later.” I’d rather be skinned alive than talk about my feelings and failings, with Jake of all people.
I hopped off the fence. A cloud of ginger-colored dirt puffed around my bare ankles as I crossed the expanse of gravel and weeds known as the “yard” on my way to the house.
Our farmhouse was built in the 1930s, one of those “kit” houses sold by Sears Roebuck, where everything from the roof trusses to the oak trim was shipped out on railcars, transferred to flatbed trucks, and then the house was assembled onsite. Ours wasn’t a typical one-level ranch bungalow, but a big two-story Victorian/craftsman–style hybrid. Five bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, plus an enormous attic that ran the entire length of the house. The main floor boasted a good-sized kitchen, a formal dining room and living room, plus a full bathroom complete with a claw-foot bathtub, a parlor restyled as an office, and a sun porch used as a storage/laundry room.
Over the years, the Gundersons installed numerous updates. The last, when we’d added a handicapped-accessible bedroom and bathroom on the bottom floor, along with a separate entrance with a wheelchair ramp for my dad. Luckily the doorways downstairs were already wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair. For some reason that hadn’t made Dad happy.
I’d always found it strange the front door faced the road, but the covered porch with the entrance to the back door was the main entrance. Very rarely did we—or any friends visiting us—use the front door.
During my teen years, the size of our home embarrassed me. Most of my friends lived in ancient trailers or tiny farm shacks. But Dad claimed since we owned the biggest acreage in the county, it only made sense we lived in the biggest house.
Pebbles shifted beneath my sandals as I passed the abandoned chicken coop. White chunks of paint were peeling off the side panels and around the deformed round-topped door. I’d have to paint the damn thing soon or hire someone else to do it. My focus shifted to the buckled boards on the machine shed, darkened from weathered gray to moldy black. Another project requiring my attention.
Hoo-ray. Life on a ranch was never-ending, backbreaking work, which was why I’d shaken the cowshit off my boots and moved far away as soon as I was legal.
The sun seared my skin. As I gazed across the flat, open area between the hulking house and the half-dozen outbuildings—metal, wood, antique, and new—I reconnected with my eighteen-year-old self and the realization I’d been trapped in a life I hadn’t chosen.
So how was it I’d traveled to all those exotic locales of my youthful daydreams only to find myself back here on the ranch? Facing responsibilities I didn’t want, with a sinking feeling I’d gone no place at all?
A mourning dove cooed. Another answered. I lifted my face to the blazing sky, wishing for a draft of cool air to carry earthy scents of freshly mown hay. But with the dry conditions all I caught was another nose full of dust.
Whining was pointless. I’d made sacrifices for my country; it was time to make them for my family.
I’d reached the house when an Eagle River County sheriff’s car zoomed up the drive. It parked between the Russian olive and the weeping willow, scaring a red squirrel from the bird feeder shaped like a decrepit outhouse. My sister Hope inherited our mother’s quirky taste. I knew Dad hadn’t chosen that kitschy piece to adorn the stalwart tree. It seemed undignified somehow.
A hat appeared out the driver’s side before the body unfolded. The guy raised his head. The stoic face beneath the mirrored shades belonged to the acting sheriff, Dawson.
Despite the fact my father respected Dawson enough to get him appointed temporary sheriff until elections were held, Dawson and I had established a guarded relationship from day one. Maybe because I had abandonment/replacement “daddy” issues on a personal and professional level with him—and wouldn’t the army shrinks have a field day with that? It bugged the crap out of me that Dawson raised my hackles and my interest like no other man I’d crossed paths with in the last decade.
He skirted the front end to open the right rear passenger door. Hauled Levi out. Handcuffed. Dawson growled in Levi’s ear to get him moving. Levi shuffled his big feet, untied shoelaces making curlicues in the gray dirt behind him.
“Miz Gunderson.” Dawson actually tipped his hat to me before he focused on Jake. “Red Leaf.”
I hadn’t heard Jake sneak up behind me. So much for my powers of observation.
“Sheriff. What’s going on?”
“You wanna tell her?” the sheriff prompted Levi.
Levi kept his mouth shut.
Dawson sighed. “Seems your nephew decided to break into old Mr. Pawlowski’s place and help himself to some of Mr. P.’s things while Mr. P. was at Thursday lodge.”
Hope wasn’t around to glare at me, so I didn’t bother to soften my reaction. “Levi, what the hell is wrong with you?”
Levi shrugged. And smirked. The little bastard.
“Who else was with him?”
“He claims no one.”
“What did you take?”
No answer from Klepto Boy.
I directed my questions to Dawson. “What did he take?”
“A couple bottles of booze, a couple bottles of pills.”
“What kind of pills?”
Imagining my ninetysomething neighbor with a hard-on was almost enough to make me shut my mouth.
“What other kind of pills?”
B&E with a narcotics charge? Levi was screwed. The cynical side of me thought maybe he’d finally done something serious enough to get him to straighten up. “Why did you bring him here?”
Guess I’d blown my chance for Aunt of the Year.
“Normally we’d send him off to the Juvenile Corrections Center in Rapid City, but Mr. Pawlowski isn’t pressing charges.”
My mouth dropped open. “Then why did he even call you?”
Sheriff Dawson crossed his arms over his chest and braced his feet wide. “Said he wanted us to ‘be aware of the problem’ but claims no harm was done since he got back his meds and his Lord Calvert.”
“No. He rambled about how he’d known the boy’s grandfather for more’n fifty years and remembered how tough it was when he’d lost his own pappy back in ’31.”
It amazed me how the old-timers talked like 1931 was last week, not last century.
Dawson added, “Mr. P. also swore your dad would’ve wanted this sort of thing handled by family.”
Levi glared at me from behind his fall of greasy brown hair. “Yeah? Well, she ain’t my mom.”
“Son, I got no problem taking you back to jail if you’d rather. Count yourself lucky I brought you here since nobody answered the door at your mom’s place.”
Super. In addition to dealing with my delinquent nephew, I had to worry about my delinquent sister.
“Can you keep an eye on him?” the sheriff asked.
Jake stepped up. “No problem, Sheriff. I’ve got lots of bales to unload.”
“Appreciate that.” Sheriff Dawson spun Levi around and unlocked the cuffs.
Levi rubbed his wrists, aiming his sullen face at the ground and trudging behind Jake toward the barn.
“You okay?” Dawson murmured.
My cap didn’t quite shield the sun from my eyes but I glanced up at Dawson anyway. Like my dad, Dawson was a big guy—six feet three inches, built like a Vikings linebacker. He even looked Nordic, with short-cropped blond hair and a broad forehead, razor-sharp cheekbones and a square chin. If the deep laugh and frown lines on his tanned face were any indication, he had a couple of years on me, which put him in his early forties.
I didn’t know much about him since he wasn’t a local, a transplant from “back east.” Most people think that phrase means the East Coast, but in South Dakota, “back east” means any mid-western location east of the Missouri River—in Dawson’s case, Minnesota.
“Just so we’re clear, Sheriff, Mr. Pawlowski had it wrong. My dad would’ve tossed Levi’s dumb butt in jail, family or not.”
“I figured as much. Didn’t seem productive to argue. Besides, I’m still feeling my way around being sheriff. Wyatt Gunderson left some mighty big shoes to fill.”
Sadness descended on me again. “Yeah, I’m sure he did.” I sucked at offering platitudes, so I didn’t bother.
I awaited a response that was a long time coming. Dawson tried to stare me down behind those dark glasses. An exercise in futility for him, because I always won. Always.
Finally he said, “Can I ask you something personal, Miz Gunderson?”
“Sure, if you call me Mercy. ‘Miz Gunderson’ makes me feel like an old maid.”
“Only a fool could set eyes on you and see an old maid.”
Whoo-boy. I’d be lying if I said his flattery rolled off me like water off a duck’s back. I wasn’t an ugly duckling, but I’d never been rodeo-queen material either. Mostly I’d gone out of my way to blend in. Still, it’d been years since I’d fallen for that “aw-shucks, I’m-just-a-good-old-boy” routine.
“Ask away, Sheriff.”
“Seems odd, with a spread this size, that Wyatt didn’t stick to ranching.”
If Dad had handpicked Dawson as his successor, why didn’t Dawson know the story? I hated rehashing personal family history. I leaned my backside against the dirty patrol car.
He followed suit.
“After my mom died, his heart wasn’t in ranching. Wasn’t in anything, really. He didn’t take care of himself. His diabetes got worse. Then he couldn’t do half the chores after they took his leg.”
“With Wyatt being handicapped, it surprised me he wasn’t behind a desk all the time at the sheriff’s office.”
“It was hard enough for him to be in a wheelchair. Strictly desk duty would’ve killed him.”
The diabetes eventually did. The image of my strong father lying weak in a hospital bed made me shudder, not that I’d seen his indignity firsthand.
“So, strapping on a gun and helping the community gave him a purpose?” Dawson asked.
“Yeah. But he couldn’t bear to sell his birthright outright, so he turned over day-to-day ranch operations to Jake. Jake’s cousins, Luke and TJ, work as hired hands.”
“Sounds like Red Leaf has been in charge a long time.”
“He must’ve been pretty young to take on such a big responsibility.”
“He was. But he knows what he’s doing. Makes sense when you consider members of the Red Leaf family have worked for us, in some capacity, for over a hundred years. It’s what Jake and Dad both wanted.”
“What about what you and your sister wanted?”
I shrugged. “She was young and I was uninterested.”
The thud of the wooden barn door echoed like a sonic boom. Jake, TJ, and Luke shouted to one another.
“You still ambivalent about running this ranch?”
I shrugged again.
“Are you gonna sell it?”
“Why?” My gaze snapped to his. “You interested in buying?”
“On my salary? You kidding?”
I wasn’t gullible enough to believe his rapid-fire denial.
He said, “I’m just as curious as the rest of the folks around here to know if you’ve lined up potential buyers.”
I scowled. “Don’t these people have anything better to do than gossip about me?”
“Nope. Long as we’re talking about it, lots of folks are plenty interested on what you’d been up to in the army.”
“It’s not that interesting, actually.”
“I hear ya. I was in the marines during Desert Storm.” He paused. “You’ve been in Iraq?”
“Wyatt didn’t talk much about your military duties.”
Because he couldn’t. How I’d earned my keep in service to Uncle Sam was on a need-to-know basis, so Dawson’s interest won him an abrupt subject change. “Why aren’t the locals talking about the Yellow Boy case?”
“Discovered any new info?”
“No.” His demeanor changed from amiable to brusque. “I don’t expect anyone will come forward with any either.”
Dawson faced me. “Truth is, no one’s surprised that Indian kid ended up dead. He’d run away a half-dozen times before he was reported missing. Spent more time in trouble than he had at home recently.”
I remembered Albert’s parents, Estelle Apple and Paul Yellow Boy, from high school. Evidently neither of them had fallen into that brutal cycle of alcoholism and abuse that affects so many Indians living on the rez, and Albert’s disappearance and death sent shockwaves through the family. Since Levi and Albert were pals, and Levi was a pallbearer, Sophie had dragged me to the funeral. I’d gotten the impression Albert hadn’t been a troubled teen for very long. Then again, eulogies extolled virtues, not faults.
“So his death wasn’t from foul play?” I asked.
“‘Foul play.’ You sound like Wyatt. You really are a chip off the old block aren’t you?”
“That surprises you?”
“No.” He sighed. “I don’t know if it was an accident or something else.”
“That mean you’re done investigating?”
“Not a lot I can do at this point when no one will talk to me.”
He sounded a little whiny. Didn’t he know it’d take years for him to build up the trust my father had been granted?
Then again, maybe Dawson didn’t want that trust. Appeared he’d already written off the death as an accident. Wouldn’t be hard to believe he was another redneck who believed the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
I’d known more than my fair share of people sporting that attitude. I was temped to shoot them and eliminate their racism from further tainting the gene pool. Most days I refrained.
Most, but not all.
The screen door squeaked. My housekeeper/surrogate mother/babysitter/cook/chief meddler and Jake’s beloved grandmother, Sophie Red Leaf, limped down the porch steps. She shielded her eyes with a frayed kitchen towel. “Sheriff? Everything all right, hey?”
“Everything’s fine, Miz Red Leaf.”
“Not exactly fine,” I corrected. “Levi’s in trouble. The sheriff brought him here since Hope wasn’t home.”
“Where’s Levi now?”
“He and Jake are unloading hay bales.”
Sophie’s hard black stare nearly pinned my ears to my head. “Alone?”
Guilt kicked me in the ass; I could’ve been helping. But ranch duties were Jake’s job, not mine. I was JR to his Dusty. “No, TJ and Luke are here. Besides, the sheriff and I were discussing some other things.”
“Out here in this heat? Lord, Mercy, where are your manners?” She flapped the towel at me. “Sheriff, why doan you come on inside where it’s cool? I jus’ made a pitcher of iced tea. Think I can round up some of them gingersnaps you like so much, eh?”
Sophie knew Dawson’s cookie preferences?
“Hate to say no to those tasty sweets, Miz Red Leaf, but I have to get back to the station.”
“Lucky for you I’m bringin’ a fresh batch to the community center tomorrow night. But I’ll only share if a handsome young man such as yourself promises to save a dance for a gimped-up old wigopa like me.”
My head whipped to Sophie. Did she just bat her eyelashes? God help me, was my seventy-nine-year-old housekeeper… flirting with him?
“Gimped up? You? Hah. You’ll be dancin’ circles around me, for sure.” Dawson angled his head at me. “You goin’?”
Before I could scream no way Sophie clucked her tongue.
“Course Mercy will be there. Mebbe you’d better save her a dance, too, eh?”
“Be my pleasure.” The sheriff pushed away from the patrol car, brushing the dirt off his butt as he rounded the front end. He paused before climbing in. “When Hope turns up, tell her to call me at the sheriff’s department as soon as possible. Remind her she doesn’t want me to come lookin’ for her again.”
Puzzled, I watched dust devils engulf his car. When I turned around to ask Sophie what he’d meant, I found myself staring at her gingham apron strings as the screen door slammed behind her.
© 2010 Lori Armstrong