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.