Little Merc on the Prairie

The patrol car blasted down an endless gravel road, an impressive dust cloud billowed up behind the car.  A steady chorus of tiny rocks spraying the underside of the car was layered with the constant crunch of gravel beneath the car’s tires.

“What am I being charged with?” Ben asked after a few miles.  The sheriff didn’t respond.  “I wasn’t breaking any laws.  I’m just here to talk to a friend.”

At this, the sheriff looked up at Ben in his rearview mirror.  “A lot of water around these parts.”  The sheriff stated conversationally.  Ben noted a sign ahead that said Lake Thompson, indicating left, and Lake Henry, indicating the road to the right.

“Sad business I see a lot of in my line of work.  The weather turns and we end up pulling at least one car out of the water.  Someone isn’t careful and runs off the road, right into the lake.”  The sheriff paused before continuing, “People just disappear.”

The worry melted from Ben’s face and was replaced with resolve.  His jaw shifted angrily and his parsed his lips, licking them before speaking.  “No need to make threats, sheriff.  I just want to talk.  I don’t intend him any harm.”

The car plunged off the road and the sheriff brought it to an abrupt halt.  “What, exactly do you need to talk to Bill about?” the sheriff asked, turning to look at Ben.

“It’s Max, not Bill.  Maxwell Connelly.  Irish descent.  Army sniper.  Dishonorably discharged in 1991.  Worked as a mercenary for hire until about two years ago.”  Ben stared into the sheriff’s face.

Sheriff Reynhout sighed and his head sagged a bit.  “How did you find…?”

“The church” Ben replied cutting his off. “The church?”  Ben nodded in reply.  “A friend has a big net dropped over the internet.  Facial recognition saw Max in a video of Christmas Mass.”

“Just a matter of time, I suppose.  Well, who are you and what do you want?”

Ben shifted uncomfortably in his seat, choosing his words carefully.  “I want to offer Max a job.”

“Max has a job.” the sheriff countered.

“I think we can both agree that Max’s skills are underutilized in his current position.”

“Max is retired.” said the sheriff.

Ben leaned back a bit in his seat, as much as his cuffed hands would allow him to, “I would like to hear it from him.”  The sheriff stared at Ben, thinking.  “I know he’s hiding from something.  You said it yourself, it’s just a matter of time.”

“You can protect him better than I can?”  The sheriff asked smugly.

“You aren’t protecting him here.  You are hiding him, and we both see how easily I found him.  I don’t know who is looking for him, besides me, but he will be much safer with me, on my team.  We take certain security measures, and we won’t sit still long.”

Sheriff Reynhout’s glare softened as Ben’s reasoning worked its way through his mind.  He turned around and put the car into gear, pulling onto the dirt road again.  “You can talk to Max, but he’s not going to be easy to convince.”

With the escalating chances of his survival, Ben spent the remaining ten minutes of the car ride trying to focus on how he might convince Max.  He didn’t want to seem too worried about the people looking for the mercenary, but he would need to find out who it was pretty soon.

The house, that Ben assumed was the sheriff’s house, since the nose of his rental poked out of the open door of an old brown barn behind the house, was an old Sear’s and Roebuck house.  So named because it was literally bought out of Sear’s catalog nearly a century ago.  Many of these houses, all with various different modifications, consisted of a perfect square floorplan.  Four rooms, twelve feet by twelve feet, with two stories, on a basement.  Every house in eastern South Dakota, Ben noticed, had a basement.  Just north of Kansas and Nebraska and tornado alley made them a necessity.

The sheriff’s ancient house was covered with a fairly new veneer of white, solid plastic, siding.  The roof looked newer as well, covered with architectural asphalt shingles that, judging by the slightly amateur hanging job, the sheriff replaced himself most likely.

The front porch looked to be in the midst of its own repair service.  Half of the boards had been removed and tossed into a pile in the yard.  Hammers, bags of nails, a skill saw and a reciprocating saw, all tools Ben was familiar with, littered the remaining board on the porch.  The rotting boards were to be replaced by the neat stack of composite resin boards sitting, half covered by a tarp, in the side yard.

A huge tree sprawled every which way, creating a massive shade canopy, in the middle of the small front yard, just beyond the edge of the porch.  The tree dominated the front yard impressively and Ben wonder who had planted that giant.

Backed into a spot that was little more than a bare place in the grass, sat a massive, Dodge truck.  From what Ben could tell, the truck was bright red under the layers of mud.  A massive aluminum toolbox was in the bed of the truck behind the back glass where a .30-06 rifle hung.

Ben thought it was kinda dumb to leave the weapon in plain sight.  Then again, who would steal from the Sheriff?

Once he stopped the car in front of the massive tree, the sheriff opened the rear car door and motioned for Ben to get out.  When Ben was out of the car the sheriff presented a pair of handcuff keys and Ben gladly rotated around to let the sheriff remove his shackles.  Ben could clearly see the vast lake that lay just beyond the sheriff’s front yard.  Lake Henry, Ben reasoned.  An old wooden dock stretched out into the water.  Tied to the last post on the dock was a beautiful Ranger fishing boat.  A tinge of understanding went through Ben. The sheriff wasn’t pleased about him looking for Max but was really mad because he had been fishing when Wheatie had called him.

It felt good to be out of the cuffs.  Ben was rubbing his wrist when the screen door burst open.  A tall, lean man, with a red buzz cut erupted from the house wearing a severe look on his face.

“What are you lot about?” The man asked, pointing the index finger of his right hand, which also held a beer bottle, at the sheriff. “David, I thought you were going to kill him.”

“He wants to talk, Max.”  The sheriff stopped short of the steps leading on the porch and put his hands on his hips.

“Wants to talk, does he?  Oh, grand.  What should we discuss, do you think?”  Max tucked his right hand under his left elbow, sloshing beer in the process, and placed the index finger of his left hand on his chin in feigned deep thought.  “I have one, how about which three letters are you?  FBI?  CIA?  Or maybe MLB?  Yeah, that’s it.  This bloke plays for the Twins I bet.”  Max turned on a heel and stalked back into the house.

David shrugged at Ben and climbed up the steps and picked his way across the rafters that the missing boards exposed.  Ben followed David up and into the house.

The Sheriff Who Loved Me

Finding the homestead would be easy.  Every store in town, from the barber to the tractor dealership, had brochures containing detailed maps and schedules about the town’s number one attraction.  Ben sat in his car investigating the one he had snagged from the Shell station down the hill from Wheaties.  Super easy to find, not a lot of ground to cover.  But, according to the brochure, it wouldn’t be open for another couple of weeks.

Ben hadn’t planned on any breaking and entering on this trip.  And, while he wasn’t categorically against the idea, doing anything to jeopardize his long term plan was out of the question.  He would just have to hope to find Max with his head stuck under the hood of a Conestoga wagon or making horseshoes or whatever he was doing out here.  The information Ben had gathered was that Max was doing guided hunting tours.  Maybe Max was rehearsing to play Pa Ingalls in the summer pageant.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant was the equivalent of Nazareth on the Holy Land tour for those who grew up reading the beloved books the town worshiped.  While there were pageants enshrining other areas the Ingalls had lived, Walnut Grove, Minnesota for instance, DeSmet was considered the Mecca for all things LIW.  The elementary school born the author’s name.  The local Laura Ingalls Wilder society tirelessly solicited money from fans of Laura’s work to procure artifacts of the Ingalls family for display.  These things being mere ornaments, the pageant was the start on top of the tree.

Each year a story from one of the novels was selected and distilled into a theatrical masterpiece, held under the beautiful open skies of the very plains where Laura romped, played and grew into a woman. A professional director was hired to run the show, complete with prima donna tantrums and poor hygiene.  Droves of people auditioned for the various roles, sometimes with friendship ending battles over the coveted part of Laura.  School schedules, business hours of operation, even church services, were adjusted to accommodate the pageant.  The majesty wasn’t lost on Ben as he turned onto the little dirt road leading to the homestead.  Still, the whole thing made Ben a little sad.  His life was poured into becoming a tool for defending the rights and liberty of the nation, while these people spent endless hours pouring their passion into paying tribute to a simpler, purer, time gone by.  Ben wasn’t sure what he was mourning most, these people’s indifference, or the simple life he would never have.

Suddenly, a car, blue lights strobing on top, was speeding behind in pursuit.

Ben, puzzled and cursing his luck, pulled the rental car onto the soft gravel shoulder.  The brown on brown Crown Victoria sporting the spinning blue lights eased up behind him and a tall, serious, man stepped out.  He was dressed in old jeans, a plaid button down shirt and tall, heavy green jacket, and waterproof boots.  Despite his dress, a sheriff’s badge and gun-laden belt marked him well as an officer of the law.

Everything was fine.  Ben wasn’t speeding.  The car was in his real name.  The entire visit was legit.  Except for the Smith & Wesson .380 under the seat.

It was easy to buy a gun in South Dakota.  A little extra cheese made it easy to walk out the store with it.  Ben didn’t want to be caught flat-footed if things with the asset suddenly turned bad.

Ben swallowed his panic and wiped his suddenly sweaty hands on his pants as the sheriff approached the car.  Ben spooled the window down.  “How can I help you, officer?”.  Officer.  Not sheriff.  Ben didn’t want to appear too observant or well informed.  With any luck, some kid on a bike had busted a tail light while riding by and Ben would be on his way in a few minutes.

“License, proof of insurance and a copy of your rental agreement, please.”  The sheriff’s voice was deep and controlled.  The way he came off; observant and firm, put Ben on edge.

Ben produced what the sheriff asked for and handed it through the window, “Was I speeding?”, Ben tried again.

Sheriff Reynhout, as his badge read, examined the documents and spoke without looking up, “You have some business in town, Mr. Tremmor?”

“Yes,” Ben began, “I’m looking for a friend of mine.”  The sheriff lifted his eyes from his strict observation of Ben’s credentials and set a hard look on Ben.  Something out of place flashed across the sheriff’s eyes and then disappeared.  Concern?  That didn’t fit.

“Wait here.” the sheriff stated flatly and stalked back to his car.

Crap.  This wasn’t good.  Trying to appear nonchalant, Ben slunk down in his seat grasping around for the pistol that he had lodged under the seat before leaving Sioux Falls.  He thought he felt the cold steel brush his finger when he heard gravel crunching out of his open window.

Ben found it odd that the sheriff was already coming back.  Maybe he would let Ben go after all.  He hadn’t been gone long enough to run Ben’s credentials.  Before the thought could fully form in Ben’s mind he heard a familiar “SHUCK” of a Mossberg shotgun chambering a round.

Ben took little comfort in being right about the make of the gun when a quick glance at his side view mirror showed the barrel of a Mossberg 500 Tactical Shotgun aimed at his head.

“Hands!” the sheriff yelled, “On the steering wheel, now!”.  There was no trembling in the sheriff’s voice, and the shotgun wasn’t shaking in his hands.  Ben prudently complied his mind racing, looking for answers.

Wheatie, he thought.  The bar owner triggered some sort of alarm.  Max is expecting trouble.  What kind of trouble is he hiding from? he wondered.  Ben slowly, but not too slowly, moved his hands to grasp the sedan’s steering wheel.

The driver’s door opened and the sheriff stepped back a few steps.  Sheriff Reynhout did a quick scan of the interior of the car.

“Step out of the vehicle, take two steps toward me, and lock your fingers together behind your head.”  The sheriff coolly commanded.

He was had.  The sheriff was too cool and too skilled to risk a fight.  It wasn’t likely that the sheriff would be moved by smooth talking.  Ben suddenly regretted his lack of faith in luck as a virtue, and slowly did as Sheriff Reynhout asked.

Once out of the car Ben was cuffed and stowed in the back of the patrol car.  Ben noted that the sheriff didn’t see the need properly file the gun he found in the car as evidence.  Instead, the lawman stuffed the gun into an inner pocket in his hunter green jacket.  After emptying the trunk of the rest of Ben’s possessions, the sheriff returned to the car.

After a thorough search, he placed Ben’s gym back in the front passenger seat and grabbed his police radio off of its base, keying it up.  “Scott, you got your ears on?”  After a few moments, the radio crackled to life.

“Yessir.  That you sheriff?”  The voice asked.

“Yeah, Scott. We’ve got a 10-91D on Homestead Road, by Rose Lane.  Can you and Rusty deliver a stalled auto at that location to my house?”

“Roger that, Sheriff.  Keys in it?”  The sheriff replied “10-4.  Just put it in the barn.”

“Copy that.” Scott quipped as the sheriff hung the radio back up and put the car in gear.

Why was my car being put in the sheriff’s barn?  And what was a 10-91D?  That one Ben had to know.

“Hey sheriff, what’s a 10-91D?”

The sheriff grinned and turned slightly to regard Ben replying, “Dead animal.”

Wheaties

DeSmet South Dakota is a perfect picture of American Mid-West.  Very similar to dozens of other communities that surround it, yet utterly unique.  Once the home of the industrious Charles (Pa) Ingalls, and his gifted daughter Laura.  Much of the town centers around the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, written about her time growing up on the American frontier.  Imagery from the books and the period in which they were written is carried in the names and logos of local businesses.  The schools are plastered proudly with a scene of the heritage of the hometown girl turned famous author.  Even the parks, municipal buildings, and churches, in their own ways, paid homage to Little House on the Prairie, and the reality of how much the tiny town’s economy depended on it.

Another important part of the culture of Eastern South Dakota was hunting and fishing.  Small lakes, or signs eluding to them, were along the road Ben followed North to DeSmet.  These lakes, all man-made, were filled with Pike, bass, sunfish and about any, fresh water, lake-bound fish you would want to catch.  Even the occasional catfish could be hauled from the dregs of the deeper lakes.

These small, yet bountiful, lakes drew fisherman from every corner of the country.  What’ could be better for a tightly wound businessman than a week in the middle of nowhere, on a lake where fish practically jumped into your boat?  Two thousand dollars bought you food, lodging, licensing, access to all the gear, and a guide that made fishing as easy as dropping a line in the water.

Another interesting thing that Ben learned while researching Eastern South Dakota was about the trees.  If you see a tree there, someone put it there.  Planting trees was a big part of homesteading during the early plains days.  Extra land and money were available to those who followed the governments’ guidelines for planting them.  Many of the trees in DeSmet were planted by Pa Ingalls himself.  If you asked the right people you could probably learn who planted those that Pa didn’t plant.

While the lion’s share of hunting in South Dakota was done out West, in the Black Hills, the copses of trees planted around DeSmet made for prime hunting spots.  Some reports put the number of deer at twice the human population in that area.

That’s what Max Connelly was doing here.  Not hunting, but hiding.  Max Connelly, or Bill Grayson to those in DeSmet, is a highly skilled mercenary that, Ben believes, would be a perfect fit for the team he was putting together.  Or he was, at least.  Until about two years ago, Max had a reputation as a well-trained gun for hire.  He was professional, efficient, and possibly crazy.  Even though Max was born in the US, and lived there all of his life, he was full Irish.  A fact that he was quite proud of.  In fact, one day a few years back, Max started speaking with an Irish accent.  He started referring to Ireland as the homeland.  He was rumored to recite Irish poetry quietly under his breath.  It was even rumored that, when Max was drunk, he would speak in Gaelic.

His eccentricities aside, Ben felt that Max was just looking for a home.  Mercs get a bad reputation, but, generally, they are mercs because they don’t have a better offer.  Ben was going to make Max an offer that would be difficult to refuse.

The troubling thing is how Max disappeared off the radar two years ago.  He just suddenly stopped working.  After a ton of digging, Ben found Max nestled in a town of barely eleven hundred people in South Dakota.  He was hiding, Ben knew.  You don’t just walk away from a lucrative career without a girl being involved, and there wasn’t, or a lot of cash landing in your lap, which it hadn’t.  The troubling part was that Ben didn’t know what Max was hiding from.

Ben did know the best place to look for an Irishman or at least someone who fancied themselves as one; a bar.  So Ben stood on the sidewalk in front of Wheaties Bar and Grill, taking in the peculiar architecture of the bar and the buildings surrounding it.  Wheaties itself looked like it might have been a train depot in another lifetime.  Down the street was a bank that was built before the twentieth century, now home to the town’s lawyer.  One row of buildings looked like it had been several small shops, now was one big restaurant.  Only the grocery and a very modern looking, insurance building stood out as symbols of modern architecture.  All of the other buildings were around one hundred and fifty years old but were constantly being re-purposed to preserve the history embedded within their walls.

Ben crossed the threshold of the bar and surveyed the room.  It was decent sized, but it had obviously been more than one building at some point in time.  Large support columns were scattered through the room, strangely dividing the place up.  A single, well-worn, pool table sat, unused, in the back part of the bar.

Three older men sat that the scratched up old bar, while a middle-aged man sat alone in the corner eating a late lunch.  A haggard, middle-aged woman, in jeans and a Sturgis T-Shirt, was worrying the bar with a dirty dish rag.  She had old, faded, tattoos that were probably something cool when they are inked on much thinner arms.  And judging by the rugged, leathery look, of the skin on her face, the cigarette hanging from her lips wasn’t her first.

Through a gap behind to pass plates of food out, Ben could see a long-haired man in his early 50s serving as cook.  Short in stature, with long, straight, gray hair streaking out from under a baseball cap, Ben guessed that this man’s name is the one he saw on the license plate of the old Cadillac parked out front, and the sign over the door; Wheatie.  It might be worth finding out how a man gets a name like that if time permits.

Everyone looked up to regard him when he entered.  The two old men, veterans of Vietnam, fifty years on a tractor, or both, paid Ben little mind and returned to their drinks.  The man at the table, too, returned to his plate and the waitress tried not to be overly interested in the new customer.  Wheatie’s eyes, Ben noted, never left him.

“What can I do for you?” the waitress asked Ben as he mounted a bar stool near the end of the bar.  Ben noted the absence of terms like “honey” or “sweetie” that he might have found in a place like this in the South.  But he wasn’t in the South, Ben reminded himself.  These people were of Norwegian descent.  They were hard, stoic people who lived through brutal temperatures and trudged feet of snow.  They were also wary of strangers.  Ben would have to remember that, too.

“Coffee, black, please” Ben said with a smile.  He also tried to drive some of his thick Bronx accent out of his speech.

The waitress turned to get his coffee and Ben noticed Wheatie’s attentions return to the grill he was busy cleaning.

Seventies country music drifted ambiently out of cheap speakers behind the bar.  Don Williams, Ben thought, but he wasn’t sure.  A haze of smoke hovered just below the tile ceiling.

The waitress brought his coffee, black and steaming, and asked, “Anything else?”.

“Just coffee, thanks.” Ben smiled.  The waitress turned to her order pad to scribble down Ben’s coffee when he asked, “Hey, I am looking for a buddy of mine, maybe you can help.”.

“Ok.” she said, without looking up.

“I’m looking for Bill Grayson.” Ben offered, taking a deep draw from his cup.

The waitress stopped writing and looked at Ben.  Wheatie, too, stopped what he was doing to leer at Ben.  Even the old men cocked their heads slightly to regard him.  After an uncomfortable silence, Ben offered, “He was in the army with Bill, Desert Storm.  He’s a friend of the family.”

The old men turned back to their drinks and the waitress relaxed.  “If you hang around this evening you’re bound to catch up to him.” the waitress offered, “He’s probably working today.”.  When Ben didn’t react she continued, “At the homestead.”.

“Oh, yeah.  That’s right.”  Ben assumed that she meant the tourist attraction just out of town, the Ingalls Homestead, but hadn’t learned that Bill was working there, but he didn’t let on.  “Maybe I will catch him there.”  Ben finished his cup and put it, along with three bucks, on the counter and made for the door.

A View to A Hog

The air was warm, and dry, and smelled faintly like cow manure and freshly bailed hay.  The sun radiating off of the black asphalt made it seem hotter than the mild temperature would suggest.  From the rental car lot outside the terminal of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport Ben could faintly see the huge farmhouses, made small by their distance from the airport, perched on corners of massive farms.  Thousands of acres of well-kept farmland insulated the farmers from one another, and from everyone else.  Welcome to South Dakota.

Glancing at the tag hanging alongside the remote key entry and car key, Ben Tremmor saw his name listed just above the make and model of car he had rented.  As he squinted against the noon sun in search of his sedan, spotting it near the back of the lot, Ben wondered how long he would be able to continue traveling under his real name. His heart raced as he began to stride in the direction of his car while pondering his exciting future plans.

Big changes, grand opportunities and lots of danger cluttered the way forward for Ben, and this mission was the first step.  Ben found the silver rental car and deposited his black, polyester, gym back in the trunk before climbing in.

A neat little care package, including a city map, flyers for local dining and accommodations, and a handful of peppermint disc candies, was stuffed in the cup holder to greet Ben.  How quaint, he thought.  The car was immaculately clean, as most rental cars are, and the detailer who cleaned the car previously had even thought to spray the new car smell scent under the seats. The dashboard and door panels were covered in pretty plastic, faux wood, trim.

Ben regretted not having extra time to explore the small city of Sioux Falls.  Around one hundred and sixty thousand souls lived here.  That was not even a tenth of the people who lived in the Bronx borough of New York City that Ben called home.  Even from his limited encounter with locals at the car rental desk, where he was smiled at and socially interrogated by the attractive attendant, Ben could tell things in South Dakota moved much slower than he was used to.  But Ben didn’t have time for slower.

Ben turned the key and the six-cylinder purred to life and one of the trite, formulaic, country music songs that have been so popular lately wafted out of the satellite radio.  After a moment of fussing with the onboard GPS system in the rental, and shutting down the radio, Ben was pulling into sparse Minnesota Avenue traffic, headed North towards Interstate 90.  Even though it was the lunch hour, traffic was pretty light, compared to what Ben was accustomed to.  No one was honking or screaming at other drivers, or zipping across four lanes of traffic to grab an exit.  Everything seemed rather neat, and polite.  The pickup truck to car ratio was much higher than Ben knew in New York, and yellow taxi cabs were almost non-existent here.

The vast flatness of southeastern South Dakota unfolded as Ben rolled along the perfectly straight interstate highway.  Tiny farmhouses dotted the distant landscape, flanked by massive barns and silos.  Even though the farms along the road were, in fact, giant agricultural corporations that produced countless tons of various goods, Ben was able to maintain the illusion of quaintness; the lawyers and bankers behind the farm corporations were not a part of the landscape.  It reminded Ben of an old video game when the landscape was simply copied and pasted over, and over, again.

Spring was yielding to summer bathing everything in soft, nourishing sunlight.  Everything seemed to be coming alive.  A fitting metaphor, Ben thought.  He had spent nearly two months chasing down leads that eventually withered and died.  A confident feeling filled his gut today.  Ben didn’t put much stock in luck, but whatever the feeling was, it was a good one.

The farther West Ben traveled the fewer signs of civilization Ben saw.  After about an hour of heading West, Ben exited North onto a smaller highway road.  He did manage to find a McDonald’s when his exit came along.  One large coffee and he was headed North to DeSmet.  The urge to roll down the window and turn up the radio was almost overwhelming.  Ben felt good.

Highway 34, which gave way shortly to Highway 25, was straight and flanked on each side by beautiful farmland, just like the interstate had been.  Everything there was measured in a one-mile grid.  If you were on 432nd street headed North, 433rd street would reliably turn up exactly one mile away.  It trivialized given directions, Ben thought.  It was amazing how spread out everything, and everyone was.  As someone who grew up in a massive city, it was somewhat shocking.  One town Ben passed boasted a population of twenty-eight people.  Why even bother to count them?  Ben wondered.  But he knew well how important it was for the government to know everything about everyone, at all time.  He knew this too well, he mused.