Thursday, June 30, 2016

Chapter 18

A crowd had been gathering all afternoon. That’s how it was in these hick towns; everyone and their mother’s uncle would come from at least a hundred mile radius to take in the Double Diamond Wild West Show. The spectators were already spilling out over the rickety bleachers and onto the fairground lawn, munching on sandwiches from picnic baskets and drinking juice from mason jars.

      It was actually a nice day for a picnic. It was windless scorcher and perfect for doing nothing but lying around in the grass. Growing up, Stella had been on a couple of so called “picnics”—excursions that were thinly veiled work trips to forage for fire wood or berries. The closest she’d ever been to going on a real outing was the one Saturday that she accompanied Sister Elizabeth to the Hudson’s Bay in Winnipeg to pick up toiletries and new undergarments for the other nuns. Stella couldn’t remember now what the secret was she was meant to keep, but the trip had been to buy her silence over it.

      After they loaded the truck with supplies, Sister Elizabeth took her back into the mammoth building. They rode the elevator to the sixth floor. It was the first time Stella had been in such a contraption. She closed her eyes and imagined she was riding in a rocket ship, the queasiness in her stomach adding to the experience. When the doors opened they stepped out and into a whole new world— one where alien girls, some her own age, strutted through the lunch line on this strange planet called the Paddlewheel, with their big perfect hair and tight sweaters, heaping their plates with burgers, fountain drinks and bright coloured stuff that jiggled. They were accompanied by hip, hunky type young men, and they laughed and giggled between themselves at the foreigners—the darker skinned girl with the choppy bob and institutional uniform, and the nun in her habit.

      Sister Elizabeth was only a few years older than Stella, and her face broadcast her envy like a flashing neon sign, as though sitting there at that table stuffing her face with a burger and fries and sucking back a Coke was ever going to be enough— a pilgrimage to Shangri-La that only allowed her a view from a distant hill. Stella felt no sympathy for her. At least she wasn’t an Indian. At least she knew she was free to come back to Winnipeg another day to order some of that stuff that jiggled. And she most likely would.

      Pale, pimply boys, maybe a year or two older than her, fed long snaky electrical cords to musical instruments, which they twiddled and tweaked with great concentration, producing zums and tings here and there. Stella sipped slowly at her water, trying to make it last. She turned her attention from the boys to the window. She looked out over downtown Winnipeg and swore that the next time she made it back to this strange planet on top of the world, it would be different.

      Sister Elizabeth muttered something about the time and rose from her seat, but instead of heading toward the door, she made her way to the back wall where a large paddle-wheel was affixed to a simulated boat cabin. The nun sacrilegiously tossed a coin into the small pool beneath the spinning wheel. Stella was always amused by what hypocrites God people were. What was the point of offering alms to a fake restaurant display? Wishes, thought Stella, were for the things it wasn’t right to pray for, like owning a sweater that left no curve to the imagination. What was the point? Sister Elizabeth didn’t need wishes or prayers to join those girls in some flighty conversation about movie stars and boys. She could have picked her damn coin up, added it to the other money in her purse, gone downstairs, and bought herself one of those sweaters. Then come right back to spend the afternoon sipping Coke and making eyes at the pimply boys in the band. It was that easy.

      She had choices. Unlike Stella. Stella had never had a choice about anything. It certainly hadn’t been her choice to be born to a teenage mother on some starved out reservation. It hadn’t been her choice to be sired by an Irish hog farmer down the road, who liked the young Native girls and didn’t give them a choice about liking him back. She didn’t choose to be taken from a mother who loved her anyway, and put into a school where no one gave a shit about her, except some priest who also had a thing for the young Native girls. Because, if Stella had ever had a choice, she would have been born in Winnipeg to a nice middle class family and she’d be hanging out with the other kids right now, one of them, instead of an alien in this strange world she couldn’t guarantee she’d ever see again. Why when you had choices to be anything you wanted to be, would you choose to spend your life shaving the front part of your head, and then hiding in a habit?

      “We must be getting back,” Sister Elizabeth had said taking her by the arm. “We have been away too long, already.”

      As Stella stepped back into the elevator, preparing for descent, one of the pimply boys struck a chord on his guitar. It was sweet and reached out through the air to wrap itself around her like a hug. The door closed, cutting her off permanently from the music that followed.

Even with all of the windows open in the minuscule Arrow Stream, the heat was stifling. Stella slipped out of her thin gingham dress, and took a seat at the cramped fold out kitchen table. On it sat a silver train case. She flipped the lid up and stared at the mirror on the back. Twenty-two felt a helluva a lot more like forty-two. The road could age a woman like that. She hadn’t exactly been what you’d call fresh when Beauregard had taken her nearly eight years before, but she wasn’t anything like this. Then again, he could age a woman just as fast as life on the road.

      She smeared some dark cream on her face and rubbed it in. It was ironic. She’d sometimes, as a girl, fantasized that her lighter skin and mahogany tinted hair might be her ticket, and here she was covering up her sparsely dotted freckles (the only thing that the hog farmer ever gave her) to be the stereotype of an Indian princess. Not that the daytime Indian Princess shows were really of much interest to anyone. The afternoon crowds came for the cowboys. She drew a brush up the right side of her face, adding more definition to her cheekbone. She really only made an appearance during the day, as a sort of advertisement for the evening, men-only shows. The margins had shrunk abysmally after Daisy Johnson, the trick rider, ran off with Jack Colt, the trick roper. Now the Double Diamond was good for only one, maybe two shows per county, whereas they used to be able to stay on for as many as four or five back in the day. Everyone had to do their part to keep the show on the road. She drew a line up the other side of her face. If it hadn’t been for Beauregard, she’d have wound up either shaving the front part of her head, or left to wander back to a home where she knew not a soul, to wait until someone came to take her babies away. Dancing in the moonlight was a shit gig. The private “shows” even crappier. But life could have turned out worse.

      The buckskin dress was tight, and she had to shimmy it down her voluptuous body. The leather was heavy with bright coloured beads and it stuck to the sheen of sweat of her skin. She grasped a rolled cigarette between her slender fingers, lit it and inhaled a few puffs. She took a pair of fur trimmed moccasins from one of the closets and slipped her bare feet into them. This dancing was just for now. Beauregard had promised her. She just had to hang on until they made it out West, to California. He had some contacts in Hollywood that did something or other in Western movies. She was going to be on the silver screen, maybe even with John Wayne. Then she’d have silk stockings and a new dress for every day of the week.

      There was a bottle of corn mash, acquired from who knew where, sitting next to the train case. That was one thing Beauregard was good for. He always kept her supplied with that good ole liquid show time. Stella popped the cork and took a healthy gulp of it, swished it in her mouth and swallowed. “Let’s get this damn show over with, Pocahontas,” she said to the woman in the mirror. She took another sip then applied some deep red lipstick. She squished her lips together and wiped her teeth with an index finger.

      She stubbed out the cigarette and picked up an ornate war bonnet, plumed with multicolored feathers. It made her feel like an ass. Not that she could remember anything much from the old days, but she knew it wasn’t the sort of thing women wore, princesses or not. Princess. That was another thing. She’d known a lot of Indian girls in her life, but not a one of them was a princess. It was a white thing. You could be a shit farming inbred Irish pig fucker and be OK on a measure to other white folks. But to be an acceptable Indian, you always had to be some kind of a Chief, or a Medicine Man, or a Princess. She remembered her mother saying that.

      A breeze of nostalgia rose up out of nowhere and she caught the scent of its longing. She tried to recall something from the old days…more of her mother’s words, the way the women sang, the way they danced, but it all got messed up with the fake showbiz stuff so that she couldn’t really remember what was Hollywood, or Beau and his money making schemes, or the way it really had been. All she could catch the image of that might have be real were the limber feet of her mother touching the earth so lightly she looked to be floating through the tall grass. And who knew, maybe even that wasn’t real? The only memories of traditions she could swear by were the cold ceremonies of prayer in the name of the redemption of wicked souls, witnessed from a stiff position on a hard pew, or perched on aching knees.

      She pinned the feathers into place atop her head and helped herself to a few more swigs of hooch. Just a little more and she’d be ready.

      There was a knock at the trailer door. She huffed with annoyance, not being welcoming to preshow interruptions, and pushed the door open. In front of her stood a young cowboy, his hat in his hand.

      “Jake, what are you doing here?”

      “Beauregard is busy working up the crowd, so I thought it might be a good time to ask you something.”

      His look was earnest and genuine. He was two and a half years younger than her, but she couldn’t imagine an entire lifetime ever robbing half the amount of light in his smile that she’d already lost, in hers. “Well,” she said impatiently.

      He tugged her gently from the trailer. Keeping a hold of her hands, he dropped to a knee. “Stella, will you be my wife?” he said, bursting with anticipation. “I’m askin’ you to marry me.”

      “Is this a joke, Jake?” she laughed, pulling from him and reaching up into the trailer for the bottle.

      “No way,” he assured her as he fished a ring from his pocket. “This was my mother’s and I aim to put it on your hand.”

      “I’ve got to get going. I’m already running late. We can talk about it later.”

      “Is that a ‘yes’?”

      She really didn’t have time for this. She put the bottle back inside the Arrow Stream and closed the door. “It’s a maybe.”

      “I can’t live with a maybe. I need a ‘yes’.”

      She scrunched her eyes shut, trying to think. “Maybe. Yeah, Ok,” she said running off toward the crowd, leaving him still holding the ring in his hand.

      She’d have to set him straight later. 

      In the quiet of the night, while Beauregard was off getting drunk and gambling with the guys she’d just entertained, when Jake held her like she was something that could still be loved and even revered, she thought maybe she might be in love with him.

       But, she couldn’t keep patching her dress with embroidered flowers, either. Was a rodeo cowboy ever going to buy her new dresses? Or introduce her to his Hollywood connections?

Chapter 17

Charlie had expected to run into Cody now that he was back in town, but actually seeing him unnerved her in a way she hadn’t anticipated. She was suddenly embarrassed to be there with Riley, and didn’t know why. Maybe it was because Cody always thought that he was so much better than Riley, and being there with him was just one more thing that meant she was a loser in his eyes. Or, maybe it was just awkward to have been intimate with two long-time friends who were now face to face with her. Her pulse was racing and she felt fluttery and hot. She wished she could make it stop.

      “You two raising hell?” said Cody.

      Riley shook his head. “Not me.”

      “Ah, then it must be this feisty one,” he said, eyeing Charlie from head to toe. “She’s a handful, ain’t she Black Bull?”

      Riley blushed. He was always blushing. Damn it. Not now. And how could Cody just walk fresh into the situation and have it pegged in a heartbeat? Charlie turned her attention away, pretending that something across the dance floor had caught her eye.

      “Looking good, as always, Charlie, even with that bruise.” He nudged Riley in the ribs, “You give that to her Black Bull?” His coy smile revealed a string of broken and missing teeth. Charlie hated herself for even knowing him.

      “I thought I should wear something purple for you. I remembered how much you like it.” She gulped down the remainder of her drink. “Maybe I should get a matching pair of Wranglers.”

      “You’re not still sore about that are you?”

      She was, but she knew that if she let on, it would hurt Riley, and make her look like she still cared about Cody. “Nah,” she said “you were always a little too short for me anyway.”

      Cody jabbed Riley in the ribs again. “But you’re not, are you Black Bull? A real man, hey?”

      She wished that Riley would pound Cody’s face in, instead of just standing there blushing like a loves sick idiot while he was being blatantly disrespected.

      “Come on.” She pulled Riley by the sleeve of his shirt onto the dance floor. She was confused and couldn’t nail down how she felt, but she was determined to play it up for all it was worth— put on a real lovey-dovey show for Cody. She hadn’t had anything much more intimate than drunken fucks, since the Clarissa incident, but there was no reason why Cody needed to know that. She wound her arms behind Riley’s neck. He smelled good and when she closed her eyes, she knew it hadn’t all been drunken fucks, because the night before there was a moment when she as terrified that maybe she could fall in love again.

      Cody wasted no time in finding some nineteen or twenty year-old buckle bunny. It burned Charlie to see him twirling the girl around the floor, when he’d never even danced with her once, in the whole time they were together. “It’s nice to have a partner taller than me for once,” she told Riley.

      Riley’s look was so intense, she wasn’t sure he had heard what she said. “You have the most beautiful eyes. Has anyone ever told you that?”

      Charlie pulled back. Why from him? Why a lame-ass line when she was starting to believe this might be real? Beautiful eyes? She had a big fucking shiner that had half swollen one of them shut. Her expression became coy. “I only hear that from people who are trying to get me into bed.”

      Riley laughed. “What if I am? Would you like to come home with me tonight?”

      The song finished and a new one began. Charlie took the opportunity to tug Riley from the dance floor toward the bar. “I’d love to,” she told him when they reached the crowd of milling people waiting for drinks, “but you live the opposite way of me and I’ve got to get up early tomorrow. We’re shipping out the hay.” It was true, but she was no stranger to going without sleep. The real reason she didn’t want to spend the night with him was that she couldn’t go any further until she figured out what the hell she was into with him here. She had to get a better handle on the situation before she could manage another night like the one before.

      He whispered in her ear. “I’ll beg, if I have to.” It sent a warm shiver down the side of her neck. “I just want to be next to you tonight.” She was losing her strength to resist.

      “Are you guys getting all kissy-kissy again?” Cody interrupted, bumping into Charlie and Riley and breaking their embrace.

      Charlie turned toward the bar. “Crown and water, neat please. Make it a double.”

      Riley and Cody were busy talking when she turned back. She wasn’t sticking around to humour Cody anymore. “I’m going for a cigarette,” she said, pointing to the upper level smoking section. Riley nodded to her.

      She watched stealthily from beneath her hat, wondering what they were talking about. Maybe her—comparing notes, or something. No. Not from Riley. She stubbed out her cigarette and lit another. And then, she had to admit it to herself. She wanted them to be talking about her. She wanted Cody to be remembering how good it was and regretting that it was now that good with someone else.

      She watched Riley excuse himself from Cody and make his way through the crowd, toward her. “You really should give that up,” he said, when he reached her.

      She shrugged. “Yeah. There’s a lot of things I should give up.”

      “So, are you coming home with me tonight?”

      It all muddled together— the reasons why she should, and the reasons why she shouldn’t, making it impossible to decide. She needed another drink.

      “No pressure, but I have to take off right away. I promised to take Ry fishing tomorrow morning.”

      Her face was frozen with confusion. She needed to stall. “You’re pretty close with him, eh?”

      “He’s the whole reason I came back to the Peace. When my sister got pregnant, I knew it was time to come home.”

      “She looks so young to have a son.”

      “She is. Some married rig pig knocked her up when she was sixteen, handed her some cash for an abortion and split town.”

      “What a jerk,” Charlie said, forgetting for a moment that she had a decision to make.

      “Look, Charlie,” Riley pulled her closer to him. “I don’t know how you feel about me, but I’ve liked you for a long time. It doesn’t have to be sex. I just want to be next to you.”

      When was it ever not about sex for a man? She couldn’t do it. If he’d said, “Come back with me; I’ll fuck your brains out,” she might have done it, but what was she supposed to do with, “I just want to be next to you.” She didn’t have the stomach for corny and fake. Not from him.

      “I really can’t tonight. I think I’m just going to hit the road myself.” It was a lie. She knew it. She looked down at her boots. “I didn’t get much sleep last night and I’m really beat.”

      “Yeah. I guess so,” he said. “Can I take you to dinner tomorrow night?”

      “Sure, that would be great.” The waitress brought her another drink. She paid for it and slammed it back. “Well, I better get back to homestead, I guess,” she said faking a yawn. “If you catch a fish, I’ll come over and cook it for you.”

     “Oh no, it will be my treat. I’ll cook.” His disappointment was obvious. He reached for her hand and held her fingers entwined in his as they headed for the door.

      Cody whooped and sang the chorus of He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo, as they left the bar and some of his midget cronies laughed. Riley did, too. “I didn’t know you listened to Buffy Sainte-Marie,” he called back to Cody, taking it in stride. The midget cronies laughed even harder.

      Riley walked Charlie across the parking lot to the farm truck. “So we’re on for tomorrow?” he asked.

      She’d never known a guy like this before. She wanted to change her mind, to say, “Ok, I’ll go home with you,” but fear held her back. What was this strange person in front of her. He couldn’t possibly be from the same universe she’d been living in for twenty-seven years. “You got it. Tomorrow.” She stepped in close to him, her body coming alive at the touch of his lips. It would be so easy for this night to last forever. She opened her eyes “So, tomorrow, I guess.”


      She climbed in the truck and turned the engine over. As Riley drove out of the parking lot, she lit a cigarette. When his tail lights faded in the distance, she put the truck in drive and turned toward the Condhill. Out of a five girl line-up there had to be at least one girl she knew and liked, could have a drink with and get her head straight again. She needed to talk to someone else who got it, because a man who liked her that much? There had to be something wrong with him, and she had to get her perspective back, to be prepared for when the truth came out.

Chapter 16

Charlie’s ass looked bigger than she’d realized. Seeing it now in the bathroom mirror, she wondered if she could go through with this. The bra and panties were cute though. She’d only worn them once, just the week before actually, but Cody told her they made her look like a trashy stripper. Go figure. She’d thought the quick release snaps on the sides of the g-string would be perfect for a guy who treated foreplay like a timed event. When it came to love making, Cody always went at it like he was racing the clock. Well, it was a cute set and it was about to finally get some use. As for the stilettos Cody was so against? She was wearing them tonight, after all.

      She put her foot up on the bathroom counter and pulled her panties aside, checking for toilet paper. Good, none. That would be a helluva way to make a debut, with toilet paper stuck to your ass.

      She tugged the brim of her hat down and gave herself one last long look. It was all so crazy. When she’d strapped on her dusty rose chaps that afternoon, she’d never dreamed she’d be wearing them on stage just a few hours later. She swallowed hard, unsure she could follow through. Of course she could do it. She just rode Gypsy Wind for the eight.

      Charlie stepped timidly into the DJ booth and glanced toward the boys. Chester was beaming away. Idiot. Jim was chatting up the busty blond dancer. Typical. Riley was staring down into his drink. She wanted him to look at her, to give her support, or approval, or something. He refused to meet her eyes. He’d already had his say. He’d followed her back to the motel to talk her out of it. But she was too wild with the fire and revenge to see any other course of action.

      She felt sick in the pit of her stomach, but it had already gone too far. She wasn’t backing out now.

      “Any requests,” the DJ asked her.

      “Something country. Something about cheating dogs. Maybe Shania.”

      “I don’t have much country, but I got something that’d suit,” he said. “What name you want to use?”

      Charlie drew a blank. “Um…um…Gypsy.”

     “Ready babe?”

      Charlie smiled. “Let ’er buck.”

      The skeleton dissolved in her body, disintegrated, deserted her. The stairs felt as though they would give away beneath her and her pulse fluttered erratically.

      A low sultry croon started her off as she stepped up into the blinding lights. With a sexy swagger she let the notes of a guitar carry her across the floor, trying to keep time with the music, rather than the beat of her runaway heart. Step by step toward the front of the stage. She stopped, and cocked a hip, then swivelled her pelvis, and cocked the other hip. She tilted her head back, and looked out from beneath her Stetson—cool gangster-like. She could’ve sliced a man through with the intensity of those blue eyes. Her feet slid back slowly, slowly, hips popping, step by step. The hat came off, her head rolled from shoulder to shoulder, hair fanning out through the air. She turned on a heel. Spin, step. Spin, step, and grasped the cold steel pole. She strained against it, neck arched, a long drawn out curve spread through her rib cage, stretched her tummy taught, stretched through her thighs into her chaps. Hat in hand. Hair brushing the floor of the stage. Then, a rebound like an echo. A long lean leg wrapped around the pole. She rolled her hip, tipped her ass, her hat nestled between the tender parts of muscular thighs.

      A cheer roared through the barroom. The first time it hit her since she’d taken the stage. She’d been so detached when she hit the stage. But this was real.

      She unwrapped her leg. Pushed it out, behind her. Step, step. High kick. Cheers. Louder. Louder. She pulled back from the pole. Dropped into the splits. It was a miscalculation of her flexibility and she knew it would hurt in the morning.

      “Take it off. Take it off. Take it off.” The chant broke the groove she’d slipped into, but didn’t intimidate her. Actually, it was the opposite. Pure adrenaline infused her pores. She slid to all fours. Crawling. Crawling. A lioness stalking her prey. She lifted her angular chin. A flash of wild expression from under her Stetson. Voracious eyes, hundreds of them stalked her back. She was the object they all wanted. A warm damp moisture came on her, an unexpected physical yearning.

      She lunged a leg forward and rose to her feet. The chords of the guitar drowned under shouts. Her nerves were on fire and she wasn’t sure she could manage the bra clasp. Her hands quivered, as she ripped it up, over her head. The men jumped to their feet. The same guys who’d seen her as one of the boys when they rodeod were on their feet ravenous for her. Eat shit Cody, she thought.

      Her breasts were high, slightly more than a handful, plump. She grasped a skyward nipple and rolled it between her fingers. As though slipping into a coma, the noise of the crowd entranced her. It was a hypnotic drug, the most exhilarating fix she’d ever had, and it moved her body with abandon.

      She sauntered backward, until she could feel the cold pole nuzzled in the crack of her buxom ass. She took her Stetson in hand, and placed it on her lap. Her free hand disappeared behind it. A moment later the hand emerged, with a G-string twirling in the air.

      Loonies bounced off of the stage like rain drops on a pond— the chime of it a new rush of its own. She picked her way across the golden pebbles to the side of the stage, turned her backside to the crowd and bent in half. Barely a flash before the hat swung around to obscure the sweet spot. The men booed, frustrated with disappointment. She laughed as she straightened, bringing the hat back to the front. This was power. She turned to them and kicked a leg high above her head, using the Stetson to play peek-a-boo with the prize.

      The song came to an end. Applause and bellows. “Show me the pink!” men called from across the bar.

      She’d killed it! And that goddamned Cody? She wished he’d seen it. Wished he’d been in the crowd the whole time. At least she could be sure he’d hear about it.

      Sweat rolled down her body, collecting between her breasts as they heaved for breath, drawing a line that trickled down her navel and dived beneath her hat. The DJ had explained that amateurs just performed two songs, not five like the professionals. That meant this was her cue. She looked out through the glare of stage lights. Now was the moment. No going back.

      Chester set a drink on the side of the stage for her. She bent cautiously and dumped it back. The sound of a piano trickled from the speakers and she let it fill her until she stood erect again. An attentive hush fell over the crowd. She paused, waited until she was certain that all eyes were on her, even Riley’s. Then, she took a breath, held it, and tossed the Stetson toward him.

      He caught it as though it were something virginal that needed protecting. The sparkle in his eyes went out, extinguished by quiet disenchantment.

      Applause riveted through her with a violent jolt. The waves of it carrying her back like a current sucking her away. She bent as if to touch her toes, placing the palms of her hands on the stage floor, lifted the weight from her legs and slid her feet to her side, allowing her bare bottom to land gently on the icy stage. She reclined on her elbow and drew her thigh up high, extending her calf and pointing her toe over her shoulder. Underneath the dusty rose chaps were thick black bruises. Even if they hadn’t been concealed, not a soul would have noticed them.

      Another shower of loonies rained down on the stage and Charlie feared that some of them might actually hit their intended target. She moved to another pose, every bit as obvious as the last. The loonies kept pouring down. And then, the music faded and the DJ’s voice came across the microphone.

      She’d barely been able to will her legs to move up the stairs to the stage, when she started, but she bounced through the toes of her stilettos now, as she took the doorman’s hand. What a rush! She was filled with delirium, her speech incomprehensible as she tried to tell the DJ how the show went.

      “Amateur my ass,” he said.

      “No,” Charlie protested still sucking for breath, “I am. Honest. I waitressed at a strip club in Red Deer for a bit. Slow afternoons.” She wiped the sweat from her brow. “The girls used to teach me stuff. But god, I never thought I’d do it for real, myself.” She braced herself against the booth to combat her dizziness. “That was nothing. I was so nervous, I forgot all the pole tricks I learned.”

      She felt a hand on her back and it shocked her to an upright position. She turned quickly

      “Divinity,” said the voluptuous blond, extending a hand for Charlie to shake. “Can I buy you a drink?”

      Charlie smiled. “Sure.”

      “That was hot for a girl who wouldn’t flash me her tits earlier,” she said. “I think my agent would love you.”

Chapter 15

Charlie remembered the last day that she had thought her far-from-a-fairy-tale would have a happy ending.

      She’d sat on the edge of the motel bed, a shiny new buckle in her hand. She stared at it for a long time before fastening it to the end of her belt. It was what she had waited for all season— to make a ride. And not only did she do it, but she won the buckle too. But the victory hadn’t exactly been what she had expected. Cody had thrown a wet blanket on her boastful moment in a helluva hurry. “Don’t know what you’re so damn proud of,” he’d told her. “It was a shit ride, anyway, buckle or not.” When he was the one who’d put her on her first horse, loaded practice bronc after practice bronc— pushed her when she was ready to give up. Now he was barely speaking to her.

      She looked at the pair of high heels, lying on the bed. She’d promised the guys that she’d wear a dress out when she won her first buckle. Cody picked up the shoes. “You want to wear those hooker shoes so you can tower over me even more? If it’s for my sake, don’t bother.” He threw them to the ground and stormed into the bathroom.

      There wasn’t much to do. She turned the TV on to Oprah, which interested her very little, but it was noise to keep her out of her head, and cracked a warm beer. Finished it, and had another. She stared at the red dress pointlessly. She’d waited all season to wear it. But she’d made up her mind when Cody bitched about the shoes. She wasn’t going to wear it.

      She grabbed her belt off the bed, the new buckle attached like a broken toy on Christmas morning, and ran it through the loops of her jeans. Cody had been in the shower for a century and she was getting impatient to join the others at the bar. She pulled her hat down on her head and gave herself a quick glance in the mirror. She wouldn’t suit a dress anyway.

      There was a loud thump on the motel room door and it flew open before Charlie had a chance to answer. Riley, Jim and Chester stepped into the room.

      “What if I’d been naked?” Charlie asked.

      “That’s what we were hoping for.” Chester grinned.

      Riley’s eyes were quizzically disappointed. “What happened to the dress? You promised.”

      She shrugged her shoulders. It wasn’t worth answering.

      Chester was smiling mischievously and Charlie was sure he was still savouring some twisted sort of mental image of walking in on her undressed. “Where’s that man of yours?”

      “Yeah, we’re ready to paint the town red,” added Jim.

      She pointed toward the bathroom door. “He’s been in there for the last hour. I think he ran out of hot water a couple of minutes ago.”

      “He’s just sulking ’cause his woman won the buckle today,” Riley hollered over Charlie’s shoulder.

      The bathroom door cracked a hair. “Hey, fuck you Black Bull,” Cody shouted back.

      Chester threw an arm around Charlie. “C’mon cowgirl. Let me buy you a drink.”

      She turned toward Cody, looking for permission.

      “Whatever. You don’t belong to me,” he said, without meeting her eyes, and shut the bathroom door.


The tavern across the street was dark and smelled of fifty years of booze and stale cigarette smoke. The barroom was dark, except for the bright lights that flashed across the stage. A tall busty blonde hoisted herself and swung around a pole, the agility of the manoeuvre a marvel. “Hey, think you could do that Charlie?” Chester teased.

      She leveled her eyes on him disapprovingly.

      They took a table near the stage. Charlie would have preferred one further from the action, but the place was packed and she didn’t have much choice. She pulled her hat down over her eyes and claimed a seat that wasn’t dead on facing the show.

      “Woohoo, ride ‘em cowgirl,” the dancer called from the stage.

      “I think she means you,” said Chester.

      Charlie twisted in her chair to see the stage. The over tanned blonde gestured like she was lifting up a shirt (hers having been shed a couple of songs back). “Come on cowgirl, show us your tits.”

      Charlie blushed and sunk low in her chair.

     “Come on cowgirl.” The dancer bugged her. The bar erupted with cheers and cat calls. “You can’t sit near the stage if you don’t show us your tits!”

      Charlie shook her head, a polite smile peeking out from under the brim of her hat.

      With a wave of her hand, the dancer gave up. The crowd booed.

      The waitress who’d taken their orders was slow and Charlie wished she’d just gone straight to the bar. She needed a drink.

      “You should have done it,” said Chester, his eyes wide. “Least you could do since you didn’t wear the dress. Besides, you look like you’ve got a nice rack.”

      She reached across the table and gave him a playful punch in the shoulder. “Not as nice as your moobs.”

      The DJ’s voice cut through the music. “And, don’t forget it’s amateur night tonight. We’re looking for some fresh meat. Any of you gals up for getting naked, just make your way over to the DJ booth. First prize is five hundred big ones.”

      “Don’t even say it.” Charlie said, before Chester had a chance to.

      “Hey, that’d pay for a few entrance fees,” said Chester.

      “Yeah,” agreed Jim.

      “I don’t need it. I make pretty good money working with Cody. I’m not stupid enough to go broke ranching like you, Chester.”

      A shard of dim light split across the bar room floor. She saw Cody step through the door, followed by an overly giggly barrel racer. Charlie couldn’t stand the girl. It wasn’t that she had any great reason for disliking her, apart from the fact that she just didn’t get women who spent more time curling their hair and painting their faces, than warming up their horses before a rodeo. That and the chick was a grade A slut.

      “Well, you finally made it,” said Chester. “And you brought us a dame I see.”

      Cody smiled and pulled out Carissa’s chair for her. As if he was a real gentleman? Charlie gritted her teeth. He never did that for her. And why the hell’d he invite that bleach job to join them anyway?

      Charlie brushed her knee against Cody’s, looking for reassurance, but he pulled it away. Carissa was whispering in his ear even though the show was over and the music was low. Charlie gave some deep thought to ripping her face off.

      Riley gave Charlie a sympathetic smile. It embarrassed her. It was bad enough that she could see what was happening, but did it have to be so obvious to everyone at the table?

      She excused herself to go to the washroom, but only made it as far as the bar. “Four shots of tequila,” she told the bartender. He lined them up in front of her. Looking around she checked to see what Cody was doing. His arm rested on the back of Carissa’s chair. “Mother fucker,” she said and downed the first shot. She raised a hand to the bartender waving off the wedge of lime he was offering her. She didn’t mess around downing the others, either.

      The rush ran through her. Just what she needed. The beer hadn’t been working anywhere near fast enough.

      Making her way back to the table, she could see that Carissa was still moving in on her territory. Sliding into her seat, Charlie ran a hand under the table and grabbed a hold between Cody’s legs. He pushed it away, never once turning his attention from Carissa. Charlie felt her new buckle press into her lean ribs, as she reached forward to light a cigarette.

      The volume went up on the music and the DJ announced the next dancer. “I need a pack of smokes,” Cody said, rising from the table.

      “Here, have one of mine,” Charlie offered.

      “I should really get some more,” he told her.

      She watched him disappear through the doors to the lobby, then turned to Carissa and met her eyes, dead on. “So, you know Cody and I are together, right?”

      “Together? How sweet,” replied Carissa. Her tone was so fake; Charlie had to take a few deep breaths to keep from knocking her pearly whites right out.

      “Yeah. Just so you know.”

      “I wasn’t aware that he belonged to anybody. He seems a little old for a mommy.”

      Charlie pushed back her chair and rose to her feet. She stepped in close to the overdone bitch. “I’ll happily take a round out of you and your purple Wranglers, right now.”

      Riley caught Charlie by her waist and drew her back. “C’mon. How about a two-step?”

      She pulled away from him, and turned back to Carissa. “Don’t think I fuckin won’t.”

      Riley dragged her toward a small space between the tables that didn’t exactly qualify as a dance floor. “Cody’d be the stupidest guy alive to mess things up with you, especially for that girl. He’s just puffin his ego ’cause you won the buckle today and he bucked off. Let it go.”

      She vibrated in his hands. Something told her that everything she had been clinging to was about to come apart. “It’s more than that.” Her voice cracked. She dropped her chin, using the brim of her hat to hide the tears she couldn’t hold back. She clenched her jaw, until she knew her eyes wouldn’t betray that she was about to unravel. “I think it’s over.” The matter of fact tone of her own voice surprised her. And then it hit her. She’d expected this from Cody all along.

      Riley shook his head and scrunched his face, as if to say “nah.” He spun her out, and twirled her back in to his body. When they stepped off again she strained away from him. “Hey, how about letting me lead?” He laughed.

      An hour passed before the drinks hit her and she had to excuse herself to go to the washroom. When she was finished, she flushed the toilet. It was hard to do her business with the amount of moaning and racket that was coming from the stall next to hers. She wondered what kind of people were so lacking in romance that they would get it on in a public washroom. She wasn’t full of class herself, but she was damn sure that she wouldn’t have had sex with George Straight in a strip club john.

      When she saw it in the mirror, while washing her hands, it seemed too surreal to be true. But there it was plain as day. From under the stall door behind her— the cuffs of purple Wranglers and Cody’s red Justin boots. What the fuck? She hadn’t even realized Carissa was still at the bar, she’d been missing for so long, and Cody was supposed to be gone for cigarettes. What the fuck!

      She turned her body and booted the door in with the heel of her boot. It swung open, sending Cody and Clarissa tumbling ass over tea kettle on the toilet.

      “You little fuckin rat,” she spat. “And Carissa, you can shut the fuck up with all that moaning. Even Cody knows he has a small dick.” She kicked the little runt square in the back, right where he lay on top of Carissa, with her gaudy purple jeans around her ankles.

      He didn’t run after her out of the bathroom. Didn’t proffer excuses. That was how she knew he’d done it on purpose— a helluva a way to get your walking papers.

      Everything had been turning in her head so quickly. And now the world abruptly stopped. She couldn’t think. She was shutting down with overload. Her boyfriend, her home, her job— they were all gone now. He was the only man she’d ever loved, and this was what she was worth, being dumped like this.

      Charlie headed straight for the bar. “Double Crown and water— neat, and two shots of tequila.” She slammed the tequila and carried her drink back to the table.

      “You alright?” Riley asked her, as she sat down. “What happened?”

      Charlie thought for a long time before answering, scared that if she let the words out she’d break.

      Jim placed another drink in front of her. “What’s wrong?”

      She closed her eyes and counted to ten, trembling in her own skin. Riley put an arm around her. It seemed to be the only thing that kept her from dissolving into the dirty brown barroom carpet. When she opened her eyes and looked up a few tears escaped them. Confusion broke across her face.

      The door to the girls’ room opened and out walked Cody, hand in hand with the barrel racer.

      Chester turned toward the spectacle. “What the—?”

      “What’d I miss?” asked Chester, returning with a poster from perv row.

      Riley nudged his head in Cody’s direction.

      Jim’s jaw dropped. “Holy fuckin shit. What’s that about?”

      Charlie gulped down her Crown and banged her glass on the table.

      Riley caught her by the arm, as she rose. “What’re you doing?”

      She wrenched her arm free. “Watch me.”

      She smashed her shoulder hard against the slut barrel racer, who wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way. The body check set her on the floor. Charlie could have ripped her to shreds, but it didn’t matter. She was too angry to hang a lickin on her anyway. It was Cody’s balls she was after and she was sure she knew just how to give him a good kick where it would count. She cut a line straight to the DJ booth.

      “Can anyone enter?”

      “Ah, yeah.”

      “Good. Sign me up.”

Chapter 14

Charlie pulled onto the pavement from the gravel road. She had to swing wide to avoid a large group of children who were walking on the shoulder. They waved at her, and she waved back. Her world was so absent of children. As it should be. It was a hard ass adult world. But a world without children was missing something.

      The drive home took more than an hour and Charlie was thankful for it. She was in no hurry to step back into the mess she had left back at Jacob’s. It was edging up on noon when she walked into the house. It looked empty and Jacob’s truck was gone, but she could hear the faint melancholy sound of an acoustic guitar from behind his door. She took a beer from the fridge and downed it quickly, then tapped lightly on his door. No answer. She could imagine him in there, self-medicated out of his mind, the tape recorder running, capturing hour after hour of his sad music. When the tape ran out, it would be carefully catalogued and placed in its proper place on a floor to ceiling shelf, for no audience to ever hear again. Then if he wasn’t ready to come out yet, he’d pop in a fresh tape and fill it with the sound of ghosts, too. The quiet cataloguing moments were tense for Charlie, the not knowing if the tape had run out or he’d finally taken too many diazepam. But, for now at least, there was music, so she slipped her boots on again and went to take care of the chores.

      The hens had no water and they were out of feed. The eggs hadn’t been collected in a couple of days. God forbid that Stella pitch in, or that Jacob thought of anything like the animals when she came to visit. It was just one more thing that irked her about Stella. Spoiled bitch probably never did a day’s hard work in her life. Born with a silver spoon.

      She saw that the pack horses had been moved to the upper corral, but hadn’t yet been shod, and she made a mental note to have Bonney done when Jacob got around to it. There were a few thistles poking out between the carrots in the garden, but Charlie couldn’t care less. It could wait another day.

      She didn’t bother to shower when she finished up the chores, because she wasn’t ready to let go of the smoky smell of the bonfire and the way it mixed with Riley’s scent. Each inhalation sustained a moment that had long since passed. She flopped on her mattress and felt the ground beneath the bed shift and sway. She closed her eyes and replayed the night in her head over and over again, feeling the butterflies rising once more. Patches were sketchy and missing. But that song and the way Riley had looked at her as he sang along. She wished it was something tangible that she could hold in her hand. Outside, a loose board banged out a rhythm against a fence post, and the wind whistled through the window sill. Laying there with her eyes closed she could hear the music in it now.

      After a long time, she realized that the distant guitar had long since faded. Her heart held its beat. She sat up on the edge of her bed and strained her ears for any hint of sound. What if this was it? She put her head in her hands and tried to summon the courage to go back to his room. And then she heard a creak in the floor. Her bedroom door opened and Jacob peeked his head around it.

      “You OK?” he asked her.

      “Fine,” she said.

      “Stella back yet?”

      Relief turned to anger. “Nope.” She stared at the red numbers on her alarm clock.

      Jacob shook his head, as if it would clear his mind, and bit down on his thumbnail. “We should probably talk, I guess. I mean about the other night”

      Her eyes bored into the alarm clock until the numbers went fuzzy and blurred together. “No. It’s fine.”

      “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. Look, everything’s complicated. I’m an old man. And you have a whole life ahead of you. I can’t give you any of the things you need. I want you to stay here, but you and I… well, that just can’t go anywhere.”

      If she hadn’t been numb with beer and exhausted from a night of hard drinking, she might have fallen apart. Then again, she had Riley now and maybe Jacob was just plain full of himself to think that he meant anything to her.

      “Gypsy, can you look at me?”


      “So I know you’re OK.”

      “I’m fine.”

      “Are you sure?”

      “It was nothing. A mistake.

      He turned from her and his footsteps disappeared down the hall and into the porch. The front door closed behind him.

      “And, my fuckin name is Charlie!” she screamed, ripping the clock from the wall and throwing it across the room.


Every time she came to this bar or any one like it for that matter, she seemed to meet exactly this type of asshole. Charlie took a sip of her Crown. Yup, carbon copy of the last bozo: on the down side of middle age, cocky as fuck, higher than a kite on who knew what, and full of shit.

      “Yeah schnookums, I rode in the PBR for a few years. Missed the finals by one ride. Bull didn’t buck for nothing. Should’ve been a reride.”

      Was this guy for real? He’d never been on a bull in his life, and definitely not in the Professional Bull Rider’s Association. She rolled her eyes and scanned the crowd for a familiar face.

      “Hey, aren’t you that peeler?” the guy asked sniffing and wiping his nose.

      “Um, yeah,” she smiled like she was looking at a dead mouse going down a toilet bowl. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t just tell him to fuck right off. Maybe she’d bit a tolerance to entitled assholes. Maybe she knew if she did he’d create a scene and then the whole bar would have to know a stripper was in their presence. But probably she just forgot how to leave work at work and forgot too often when she wasn’t being paid to be nice.

      “Wanna come out to my truck for a bump?” He patted his hip pocket.

      “No thanks. I don’t do coke.”

      “I got some killer weed.”

      “I don’t smoke weed.”

      “Yeah, whatever. I never met a peeler who didn’t indulge in something. What’s your game? Meth? Huh?”

      “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m a redneck.”

      “Yeah, so am I, but-” He sniffed again then reached out and pushed her hat back off of her forehead.

      Charlie’d had enough. She stepped backward, and tugged her hat down over her eyes.

      “I’d treat you better than the guy who did that.”

      “It was a horse.”

      “Sure, it was. Yeah sure. So, how much would it cost me to, you know?”

      “I’m not a hooker.”

      “I’ve got money. I just got out of camp. We could have a pretty good party.”

      “I’m not for sale, thanks.” She spoke through gritted teeth.

      “C’mon. What’s up your twat? Think you’re too good for me.” He reached out and grabbed her left breast hard.

      She plowed back through the dense crowd, fighting to get space, and free of him.

      And then, she saw the jerk being sucked away from her by an invisible force. The sea of people parted leaving him plenty of room to land on his ass.

      Riley pounced on top of him, looking down, a fist cocked back by his ear. “You should learn some manners,” he said.

      A hulky bouncer came down on Riley with a strangle hold. The strung out jerk scrambled back to his feet. “Yeah, that’s right,” he shouted. “You get that fuckin chug out of here. Attacked me out of nowhere. Shouldn’t have let him in here near the firewater”

      “Stop! Stop!” screamed Charlie. “He was protecting me.” The bouncer quit moving backward, but kept Riley trapped under his mammoth tattooed hairy arm. “He’s my friend. That asshole,” she pointed, “grabbed my tit. Riley was protecting me.”

      The bouncer loosened his grip and eyed the man Charlie was pointing to. It was obvious that he was aggressively high.

      “It’s true,” said a young cowboy. “I was just about to step in myself, but he beat me to it.”

      Circling the action was a ring of Natives who materialized from every reach of the crowded bar. The bouncer let go of Riley without so much as a half-smile in the way of an apology. His meat hook hands fished out the instigator and yarded him toward the door. The circle broke and the guys who had come to Riley’s defence made for the door after the guy getting bounced. Riley grabbed one of the guys Charlie recognized from the night before. “Hey man,” Riley said, “just let it go. I don’t want you guys doing anything on my account.”

      “No way man. That’s bullshit. He assaulted your girlfriend and called you a chug.”

      “Let it go,” Riley repeated.

      The man shrugged his shoulders. “You coming?” He pulled free of Riley and went to join his buddies.

      “You’re not thinking about joining them I hope?” Charlie asked.

      Riley shook his head. “No way. I’ve had enough of that life. It’s their fight now.”

      “Do you think they’ll hurt him?”

      “Not likely. The cops were camped out in the parking lot when I came in. But they might scare him.”

      The bouncer stopped briefly as he passed by Riley. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s just that it’s usually your people starting it. You know how it is.”

      Riley’s eyes turned to steel, but the bouncer didn’t pause long enough to see it.

      Charlie stepped in closer and smoothed out his crumpled shirt. “Doesn’t that piss you off?”

      “Yeah, but you can’t get too far as an Indian in this town if you carry a chip.”

      “Well, you’re my hero,” she told him. Cody would have never done that for her. He would have stood back and let her fend for herself, and when she finally lost her cool and punched the jerk, he’d have given her hell for acting like a man and making him look like less of one. She gave Riley a peck on the cheek.

      “What’d I miss? You fighting again, Charlene?”

      The voice bull dozed through her like a freight train. It made her weak with nostalgia, and sent her back in time to a place when she had still believed she was going to have a life just like other girls. It nearly brought her to the floor with a flood of cold, hard realization.

She turned to face Cody.

Chapter 13

Having the feeling of being watched, Charlie opened her eyes. Large brown centred orbs stared at her from a nose length away. “Mommy, Mommy,” the boy shouted, stepping back from the bed, “there’s a white girl in Riley’s bed.”

      Jen popped her head around the corner. “Sorry ’bout that.” She cocked her index finger at the boy. “Ry, come here mister.”

      “Who is she?”

      “You never mind,” said his mother tugging him back down the hall.

      In spite of her embarrassment, Charlie felt exhilarated to be waking up in Riley’s room. The butterflies swooned low into her belly with each thought of him. She spent a long time smoothing out the bed sheets and the comforter, procrastinating, trying to put off the walk past the matriarchs of his family. But eventually, she had to admit that there wasn’t a wrinkle left to fix.

      Riley’s sister and aunt were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. “See Aunty. That’s the girl,” the boy shouted excitedly from the living room where he was now watching cartoons. A heat flooded over Charlie’s body.

      “Ry,” Jen scolded him. “How ’bout a coffee?” she offered to Charlie.

      Charlie wanted to stay. She wanted to sit at the table and hear candid stories about Riley like any girlfriend would. She looked between his sister and his aunt. Maybe they didn’t know what she was and that was why they were being so nice to her, because who would welcome that in their house? What if they asked the inevitable interview questions? And what do you do? She couldn’t lie. “What time is it?”

      “Ten. You sure slept late, eh?”

      “Yeah. I guess I better get going. Thanks, anyway.”

      “You sure?” asked the aunt.

      “Yeah. I really have to get home.”

      “Riley and the boys are out with da horses, already.”

      Charlie could see him through the living room window, sitting atop a dancing muscular blue roan. It took her a minute to realize that Riley was putting the horse through its paces without the use of reins. He shifted his weight and slid his feet as though he was leading a partner across the floor through some well-rehearsed choreography, instead of just showing off in front of his friends on the front lawn. The only people she’d ever seen ride like that were in videos, except for that one time she saw some young Hutterite do it in an auction ring. She couldn’t take her eyes off Riley.

      “He’s pretty good with a horse, isn’t he?” his aunt said.

      “Yeah,” agreed Charlie, suddenly conscious that both she and Jen were getting more entertainment in watching her watching Riley than out of watching him. “I really have to get going.”

      From the landing, she could see George still asleep in the basement. She pulled on her boots.

      The air was crisp. She pulled her jean jacket tight around her body and fumbled in the pockets of it for the truck keys. She had to get out of there.

      Riley halted the blue roan. “I was just about to come wake you up.” The others turned their attention toward her, as well. “We’re heading out to the place where the eagles stay. Thought we’d get you a feather to add to the character of that hat of yours. I already saddled a horse for you.”

      Charlie fished out the truck keys. She had no idea what to say to him and having an audience didn’t help. “I’m sorry. I have to get back.” She dodged his pleading eyes and cut straight for the truck. She got in, pushed the key into the ignition and lit a cigarette. Just as she was about to put the truck in reverse, a face appeared at her driver’s side window. It was Riley. She put the truck back in park and rolled down her window.

      “You’re sure you have to go?” he asked.

      “Yeah,” she said still avoiding his eyes.

      “Hey,” he said, leaning in through the window. She closed her eyes and accepted the kiss. It was soft and tasted of mint. She opened her eyes and for a brief second allowed herself the moment. But, this was not the sort of thing to get used to. She pulled back.

      “Are you going out tonight?” he asked her.

      “I might do a little Honkey Tonkin.” She winked.

      “Maybe I’ll see you?”

      “Yeah, maybe.”

      Riley leaned in the window and kissed her again. “You know, you should give that up?” He pointed to the cigarette that had been burning in her hand. “Those things’ll kill you.”

      She pulled out of his driveway and as she turned onto the road, she reached under the seat and searched for a beer. She found one and flipped the tab, releasing a small spray of bubbles. They’ll never get the chance to kill me, she thought.


      “How about this one?” the apple head doll of a French Canadian nun asked the man in the fancy suit. “She’s a good worker.”

      “No. Not that one, too fair,” the mysterious man with the deep black irises said. The nun gave him a look of confusion. He paid her no attention, as he walked down the row muttering observations about each of the girls like he was about to conduct a transaction over livestock. “Too fat, too dark, too light.”

      “Maybe this one?” the nun said pointing to Stella.

      The man stopped and eyed her heavily. She was only fifteen, but already well developed. She wasn’t sure what to make of him, but he looked like he had money and maybe it was a way to get the hell out. If you didn’t have anywhere to go back to there weren’t many options. You got married off or you joined the order. She sure as hell wasn’t joining the order. And if her hunches were right, a husband was the answer to everything that kept her awake in terror at night. She batted the eyelashes above her deep green doe eyes.

      “Hmm,” he said, tugging at his angular chin. Then turned, as if to continue down the line.

      Stella bit her lip and squirmed a little under her uniform. He turned back to her and stepped in close, his nose near her ear and took a handful of her short bobbed hair between his fingers. He inhaled slowly. A smile broke across his face. “I’ll take this one.” He handed the nun a small bundle of bills. “Go get your stuff,” he instructed Stella.

      “Not that one,” said a tall priest, entering the room.

      “Yes this one,” the nun said firmly. She waved her hands, dismissing the rest of the girls to do their chores. The priest hung his head and followed them out of the hall.

      Stella gave a coy smile to the man who had just bought her for a bride and excused herself.

      It only took a few seconds for her to bundle her belongings into a piece of cloth. She hadn’t been given much at the residential school, but misery and a uniform. She placed a hand on the mystery of her belly and stared out the window across the yard at the tall priest. Fuck you, she thought, you and all of your promises.

      The black-eyed man was waiting for her outside, leaning on a baby blue Cadillac. It was beat to shit, but it was a Cadillac. Never in her life had she dreamed of riding in a Cadillac.

      “My name’s Beauregard,” he said, opening the door for her.

      “Stella,” she said, a lock of hair falling from behind her ear. He moved it off of her face. She guessed he was in his late twenties, maybe older. He was very attractive. She wondered if she’d love him.

      “Let’s go,” he said.

      She nodded her head and slid in the seat. She didn’t get the chance to say good-bye, but then again, there wasn’t anyone to say good-bye to. No family, no real friends. Through the side rear view mirror, she saw the priest staring down the road after her. She could imagine tears in his eyes, but there were none in hers. “Where are we going?” she asked.

      Beauregard put the car in drive. He twisted off the lid of a sliver flask. “South, a long ways South.”

      South sounded good. South as far away from the province of Manitoba as they could get.

      They drove clean across the American border following some back road and on for a good many hours and into the night. Stella guessed they were somewhere in the Dakotas, but who really knew? There wasn’t much about the world or its geography she really knew about, save for Europe, but she was never going to go there, was she? A flashing neon sign in the distance advertised drinking and dance. When they reached it, Beauregard pulled the Cadillac into the parking lot.

      “What are we doing?” she asked.

      “Stopping for a spell.”

      They got out and walked up to the tavern door. Stella stepped through it cautiously. She’d never been in a place that served alcohol before. The barroom was a dark, smoky dump and she found nothing appealing in it, apart from the music that blared from a jukebox in the corner.

      “We don’t serve Indians here,” said the man at the door, putting an arm out across Beuregard’s chest.

      Beauregard responded in a thick, heavy French accent. “Indian? Who you call Indian. I am Franch, from Maneetoeba. Mois great-great grandmere maybe. I do not know this, but I am no Indian.”

      “You have a licence?”

      Beauregard fished it from his pocket and handed it over.

      The man at the door studied it.

      “See there. See my name. Beuregard Plait. That sound like Indian name to you?”

      The man had to agree and handed the licence back to him. “Metis?”


      “What about her? She looks like an Injun.”

      Beauregard leaned in close to the man. “You tell me this. You ever see squaw with the green eye?”

      “Can’t she speak for herself?”

      Stella shook her head. The priest had once told her she looked Mediterranean. “Italian,” she said, copying sister Isabelle’s accent, and then she jabbered something that neither of the men understood.

      “All right, said the doorman. But I don’t want any trouble from either of you.”

      They found a table in the back corner and Beauregard ordered them both drinks. “Here,” he said, “get a load of this.”

      Stella tipped the glass to her lips. It tasted like shit, and burned too, but she didn’t like the way he was looking at her— like she was a little girl and not big enough for this place. She threw it back down her throat. The burn made her choke and cough, and then it faded to a nice warmth that spread through her body and gave her head a pleasant lightness.

      “Well, hot damn, you took that like a champion, little lady,” Beauregard said slapping his knee. “And that gibberish back there, that was priceless. Italian.” He saluted her with his glass.

      “It wasn’t gibberish,” she said. “It wasn’t Italian either. Latin.”

      “Yes sir.” He took a sip of his whiskey. “A sweet little Catholic girl.”

      “I’m not a Catholic.” She slammed back another drink.

      “Well, whatever you are, you better slow down on those.”

      The drinks gave her courage. “So, what did you take me out of the school for? Are we going to marry?”

      He gave her a very sober look. “No. You little darling are a business investment. I won some bucking stock off of a guy in a poker game about six months ago. I put together a travelling Wild West show, but all I got is cowboys. It occurred to me that I only had half of the West. So, you young lady are going to be my real money maker. My Indian princess.”

      “An Indian princess. Why me?”

      “Cause you’ve got a few things working for you, beyond being able to play the part.”

      “You’re not really French are you?”

      Beauregard smiled. “Moi? Oui. I am,” he said picking up the accent again. “From Maneetoeba.” He stiffened and shot his cold black eyes straight through her, dropping the accent. “I come from wherever I say I come from, and I am who I say I am. Got that?

Chapter 12

Riley’s arm rested around her comfortably, not in the possessive and macho way she was accustomed to, but in a relaxed and familiar way. He accented the confident intimacy by completing every other sentence with her name, “Charlie.” The rest of the world had forgotten that name—had forgotten the girl who answered to it and replaced her with their own ideas of cold forged bronc riders and plastic strippers. But not Riley. He’d never forgotten her. Even after knowing her and what she was, he spoke to her in a voice that was barely above a whisper, seeking out that very human part of her with hushed reverence—seeking only to find a girl inside who was falling in love with him under the stars.

      In the dim light, Charlie studied the other women. Which one had dated him last? Which had been his high school girlfriend? How many of them had he made feel the way she did now? She couldn’t recall him ever having had a girlfriend, but she wouldn’t have known, anyway. And right now, she didn’t want to know. All she could count on was that it was in this moment and nothing more. If it was more, that would mean eventually she would have to let him much closer, and that wasn’t going to turn out so great, either. She took a swig of beer and made a pact with herself that she’d just let it be whatever it was, and then hang onto it for as long as either of them could stand.

      His sister, Jen looked across the circle from the far side of the bonfire, nodded and smiled. Only a short time ago Charlie had been sure this girl would kick her ass, and now she was receiving this small blessing from her. She was unused to being accepted so easily. It wasn’t usually like this with people, especially not in her line of work, never mind the fact that she was an outsider here. But for once, she felt welcomed somewhere. She wanted it to go on and on. But everything that began would have to end.

      She tossed the stub of her cigarette into the fire and stared at the flames for a long time. When she closed her eyes, the after vision stretched across the backs of her lids, mimicking the crown of the Northern Lights. The image faded and she opened them again. It took her a moment to focus on Riley’s face— that laid back goofy grin still spread across it. She scanned the other faces around the fire. That grin must’ve been something contagious that you caught out here. She could tell by the way her own cheek muscles had been hurting all day that she was infected too. Everything seemed so perfect; she wondered if she hadn’t stumbled into someone else’s life by mistake.

      George swayed back and forth on her other side, precariously perched on an upturned log he was using for a makeshift stool. His eyes wandered to the left and then, as he tried to rise, he lost his balance and toppled forward. Charlie leapt for him and caught the back of his nylon jacket an inch before his face met the flames. She strained to heave up his dead weight, until Riley helped her to get him to his feet. “C’mon George,” he said. “Let me take you up to the house.”

      “I’m phhhiyne,” the old man slurred, pulling from his nephew and nearly falling in the fire for a second time.

      Charlie reached for him again. “I’ll come tuck you in, George,” she offered, with affected flirtation.

      The combativeness left the old man’s posture and he let her take a hold of him around the waist, while Riley hoisted a limp arm over his neck. “I’m goin ta bed with my bareback riter girlfriend now,” he announced with pride. Charlie laughed with good humour, as a few people cat called and a couple others wished him luck.

      Together she and Riley helped the old man to the house and down the stairs to the basement where a single bed stood against the far wall. They laid him down on it and Riley removed his uncle’s worn out running shoes from his feet. Charlie could hear the crinkling of a plastic sheet under George’s body, as she pulled a blanket up over his shoulder. “Gimme a kiss,” he said. Charlie bent to indulge him with a kiss on the cheek, but he planted a square one on her first. His lips were limp and wet. She pulled away and turned from him, so he would not see her wipe away his saliva. The old man laid back and closed his eyes.

      Riley moved toward the stairs and she followed him through the darkness. George was snoring before they ascended the first flight.

      Riley paused on the landing in front of the door. He turned to her and a stream of silver moonlight filtered through a window and struck against her face. “You’re beautiful Charlene,” he told her.

      She looked away and threw a playful punch into his ribs. “Not when I look like I lost a round with Ali, I’m not.”

      He gently guided her face back to meet his. “No, you’re beautiful.”

      “Do you think your uncle will be OK?” she asked.

      He tugged her by the hand. “Yeah.”

      She followed him up the second flight of stairs and past the kitchen where his aunt was playing a game of cribbage with a heavy set lady. The two women looked up and laughed knowingly. Riley kept his eyes low to the floor and it gave Charlie butterflies that lasted long after the giggles were shut out by his bedroom door.

      She was amazed when he turned on the light. Not an inch of the white drywall could be seen. Every space of his room was covered with pencil sketches— grey lines on white paper, depicting a plethora of equine movement. “Wow! You’re an artist.” She was intrigued. He blushed his signature red. Breaking from the grasp of their entwined hands, she moved closer to examine the drawings. “These are unreal. When do you find the time?” Riley shrugged and the gesture reminded her of his mystery. “So, what have you been doing all summer, anyway? I haven’t seen you around much, except at rodeos.”

      “Studying,” he answered.


      “No,” he said rubbing the back of his neck, “natural horsemanship.”

      “Really?” She looked him up and down. How did she not know these things? “So, are you like a horse whisperer now, or something?”

      He laughed. “Not quite.”

      She grabbed at his t-shirt. “Well what do you call it?”

      “I don’t know. But, I’ve sure learned a lot.”

      “Like what?”

      He nervously fingered the frame of a picture that sat on the dresser. That he was uneasy talking about himself was charming, especially after endless hours spent listening to guys who couldn’t say enough about how great they were. That he could still be self-conscious when he’d known her for as long as he did was flattering. “Just stuff,” he finally answered.

      She took the picture from his hand. A woman and a boy stood fishing on a riverbank. The woman was turned to face the camera, her wide smile sparkling through the grainy photo paper and poor focus. The boy was looking up at the woman. “Your Mom?”

      Riley stuffed his hands in his pockets and nodded.

      “She’s really beautiful.”

      “Yeah, she was,” he said.


      He narrowed his eyes on a sketch pinned just above his dresser. She followed his line of vision to a drawing of a woman riding a horse toward the heavens. When she looked back to him, she saw that he was scrunching his eyes so tightly they were nearly shut. “Yeah, breast cancer. I was twelve.”

      Charlie replaced the photograph on the dresser and ran a hand along his arm. When his face relaxed and he was able to turn his attention to her again, she saw that the sadness was still there. In almost every mental picture that she had stored of him in her head he was wearing that big white smile, but for the first time she could now recall the sadness that had always been lurking in those eyes.

      She stepped in and pulled him close to her. “I’m so sorry.”

      “It’s just part of the journey,” he said, dismissing it with a hard swallow

      “What about your dad?”

      “Probably still in jail. I don’t know. I let it go…him go. I had to.”

      “Yeah, I did the same,” she said, now looking away herself. “My dad’s a prick, too. Kicked me out when I was sixteen and moved in his twenty-year-old girlfriend.”

      “That must have been hard.”

      “Yeah,” she said in a way that was cold and detached, “considering it was less than a year after my mom killed herself.”

      Riley took Charlie’s chin in his hand and tilted her face so that her attention could be nowhere but on him. “You’re a strong woman,” he said.

      “I don’t think so,” she said, shrinking away from him, but he wrapped both his arms tightly around her. It wasn’t that his hold was too firm for her to pull away. It was that she couldn’t will herself to do it. There was nothing to lose now by giving in, nothing to hide. Deep under the surface of his skin, she was certain she could sense cracks. Her own damage was so transparent, she was awed by the meticulous way he had been mended, at its invisibility and how she had missed it. The distant fantasy crossed her mind that maybe it was her imperfections he loved.

      When he lifted her Stetson from her head, the exposure left her feeling more naked than she could recall ever having felt on stage. Suddenly, she understood how he could be so self-conscious and blushing with her. She needed a cigarette, a distraction, something to keep him from seeing into her eyes. She didn’t want him to look there anymore.

      He kissed her completely with his entire being. Her frame stiffened in his arms and became guarded, as he laid her back onto his bed. Sensing her disconnection, he paused. “Is this OK?” She could find no words to answer. She wasn’t sure she could do this, but she couldn’t figure out what else to do. She closed her eyes and let him kiss her again—to give in to the gravitational attraction. To give in to so much tenderness it sent far reaching tremors rippling through her and splitting new fissures in her already broken heart.

      “Do you know how much more you deserve from this world?” Riley whispered. She could feel herself slipping from her body, but as he yanked the snaps of her shirt open, a flood of cold air brought her back to herself. She lifted her navel in anticipation of him releasing her belt buckle and clung to his t-shirt like it was a lifeline that could keep her from turning to dust. He slid her jeans down her thighs.

      Riley pulled himself from the t-shirt, breaking the lifeline. The physical world fell away. She tried hard to focus on his bare chest to anchor herself. It was smooth and hairless and marked with large misshapen pocks across his pectorals. She traced a finger over the coarse topography of those scars and let her fingers lead her to a brand by his right shoulder. A circle with the cross running through it. “What is this?” she asked.

      “These,” he said brushing a hand over the pocks, “are the future. This,” he explained touching the brand with only his index finger, “is the past.”

      So many things to know. She pulled back the buckle, unzipped his jeans and held her breath, and then, his pants fell to the floor and they were skin on skin.

      There was nothing rushed in the way he handled her. There was urgency, but his touch was slow and deliberate and invited her to a place so fathomless, she was not sure she could return from it. She began to dissolve under his breath— to lose the definition of her own body. She pressed the side of her face against the cool cotton sheet and sought the path back, but before she could return, he brushed his cheek against the exposed side of her face and the road vanished. She became only a breath and a heartbeat that moved as part of one cadence with his.

      The fissures widened and split deeper into her chest.

      “Are you OK?” he whispered, wiping his thumb carefully across her wet bruised cheek.

      She nodded a silent yes, but the denial was futile. A torrent flowed behind that smudged tear. She wanted to hide from him, to turn back, but he held her between his hands. He wasn’t going to let her go. She might as well crack into a million pieces and let her spirit free to be with his. He would hold all of those physical pieces and when she found her way home again, he would help her to put them back together again.

      He placed a finger on her bottom lip, not to silence her, but to encourage her, as he drew it down, to give her permission to enjoy the way his own body loved hers. His other hand guided her pelvis toward him. She relaxed into it. Taking him was not a challenge or a performance. There was nothing to prove and nothing to fight. There was only a yearning to accept this moment, and all that he was offering her—to give in to all they could be together, if she could only forget herself. She bowed her head and pressed her lips against the scars, until nothing more existed, but their spirits and those places where they could not feel hurt again.

After they had both exhausted themselves, Charlie’s tears returned. Riley held her, until her body quit shaking in his arms, and then he dozed off with a quiet purr in the back of his throat.

      She couldn’t sleep. She’d gone too far. It was someplace further than she had ever been and she now realized how stupid it was to give this moment to him. He held no magic that could repair her. She slipped from his arms, pulled on her clothes, and crept out to the kitchen. It was dark and empty. There was no sign of his aunt or her friend. She opened the fridge in search of a beer, only to find none. Her body trembled in the dim light. It shook with emotion and physical exhaustion, and the imminent need for another drink. From a window she could see a group of die-hards still carrying on by the fire. She pulled on her boots, not bothering to untuck the pant legs, and stumbled out across the dew heavy grass.

      As she approached the fire, one of Riley’s friends offered her a beer. She took it happily and parked herself on the van seat, stuck a cigarette in her mouth and searched her pockets for a lighter.

      “Hey, bareback rider,” said one of the early-morning-party-goers. “Here, use this.” He held out the smouldering end of a stick. She leaned forward and pressed the tip of the cigarette to it, inhaling deeply.

      “Thanks,” she said, the vinyl squeaking as she settled back in the seat. She pushed her hat down low over her brow. It blocked her view of the sky. Through the small window below the brim, she could see only the dying embers of the fire.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chapter 11

“Damn woman, I can’t seem to shake you,” Jacob puffed through breaths, over his shoulder.

      “Oh, are you trying to lose me?” Stella called, digging her heels into the sides of her horse and squeezing her thighs. She caught up to the rump of the palomino mare ahead of her. “Maybe you’re not trying hard enough,” she called out.

      Jacob reined in his horse three quarters of the way across the meadow and turned to face Stella. Her reaction time was too slow. She over shot him and had to double back. “You know Jake,” she said as she approached him, “the Beatton is just as beautiful as the first time I saw it.” She took in the breeze coming off the water. “I think I could come here one hundred years from now and it would still take my breath away.”

      Jacob laughed, “Yeah, but one hundred years from now we’ll all be worm food.”

      She reached out and playfully slapped his arm. “Jake, you’re disgusting. Can’t you just enjoy a moment?”
      He guided his horse in near to her and leaned from the saddle, pressing his lips tightly to hers. There was nothing he took for granted in the kiss. It was dreams of that kiss that sustained his dying heart through a million miles of traversing swamp and jungle. It was one of the few things he really could still feel the warmth in.

      They pulled apart and exchanged a smile. “You know Jake, you’re such a sweet guy. How come you never found yourself a wife?”

      And the cold.

      He looked away from her. “Guess there just weren’t any takers.”

      “Maybe you were just blind,” she said.

      He moved the palomino on at a walk. “Yeah, and maybe there was that too.”

      “It’s not too late, you know,” she said following him.

      His posture straightened like an excited boy. “For us?”

      “Ah, Jake, I’ve spent my whole life doing what some man told me and being what he wanted. After the Colonel died, I swore I wasn’t going back to that again.”

      They turned up the road at the far end of the pasture and began the ascent up the river hills. “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said with a forced deepness in his voice that was meant to keep it from cracking.

      “What about Charlie,” Stella asked, “I’ve seen how she fawns over you.”

      Jacob waved a hand dismissively, “Gypsy? She’s just a kid.”

      “And so was I when I took up with the Colonel.”

      Jacob reached up and snapped a twig off of a tree that hung over the road. She’s not the settling kind. She’s going to spend her whole life running around looking for herself, and she’ll never find what she’s looking for, because she’d have to stay in one place for that. And then one day, if she lives to be old enough, she’ll realize she never really wanted to find herself in the first place.” He sent the dry branch sailing into the bush.

      “Like you? You don’t know she doesn’t want to settle down now and find herself. Love can change a lot in a person. Go ahead, take a chance.”

      “Is this your way of saying we’re over?” He reined his horse to a stop.

      Stella paused beside him. “No Jake, this is my way of saying, don’t hold yourself back on my account. We are what we are. Sometimes we are, and sometimes we aren’t. It’s nothing to set your watch by. I just want you to be happy. She brings out something in you. I’ve known you most of my life. I see it. I know.”

      “If you want me to be happy then stay here with me.” He moved the palomino on again, staring straight ahead at the road.

      “It’s not you. I just love my freedom too much.” She sat unmoving in the saddle, watching the gap grow between them. “I’m worried about you Jacob Barnes.” She raised her voice after him. “I saw your door.”

      “So what of it?” he shouted without looking back.

      “Love heals everything.”

      “What do you know about love that doesn’t have zeros after it?”

      “Fuck you, Jake. I don’t want love the way you want it, so I can’t know anything about it?”

      Jacob drew his horse to a stop again. The silence grew long between them. They’d both gone too far, and just as they knew the argument rising between them was something they ultimately would get through, they also knew if they kept hurling stones at each other’s vulnerable parts, it was going to take them some place that would be hard to come back from. They’d done that journey too many times to kid themselves, or allow themselves the luxury of a passionate fight.

      A crack shattered the air and echoed through the coulee.

      Jacob slid his right hand to the bit and yanked his arm outward and up, tipping the palomino’s head. She dropped to her side, as he swung his legs from the saddle. He was on her neck, his Colt .45 drawn, before the echoes faded.

      “Jake, Christ! What’re you doing?” Stella screamed. “It’s hunters, Jake. Jake! It’s just hunters.”

      His eyes were steel hard. Her voice faded somewhere in the air between her lips and his ears. His breaths had been heavy and erratic when he hit the ground, but had now slowed to a marksman’s rate. A leaf fluttered to the ground in front of him, and for a moment, his right hand tensed, as though it was going to squeeze the trigger.

      “Jake! Jake!” Stella shouted, backing her horse even further away from him. “Jake!”

      His own traumas had left him with a theatre of horror movies rolling in his own mind. Now the reel was flashing images he couldn’t shut off. Gypsy, slammed against the wall gasping for breath, before her blue eyes gave themselves to him. A shiver ran up his spine and he shook his head to free himself of it.


      He moved off the mare’s neck, allowing her to rise, and turned to Stella. He had nothing to say. He holstered the hand gun and remounted.

      Stella was shaking, barely able to hold the reins in her manicured hands. He saw it and still he offered no apology. If she’d made different choices, he wouldn’t be like this. They’d have grandchildren by now. “See, this is what I’m saying. It’s getting worse again and I’m worried about you.”

      “See, you want me to bring a kid into this world of mine? Are you fucking serious?”

They made their way back to the farmyard at a silent walk. When they reached the barn, he began instructing her like she was some sort of greenhorn.

      “What’s up your ass?” she asked.

      “Damn it Stella, just get out of my fucking sight. Dismount and get very far away from me.” It crossed his mind that he might snap her neck and it scared him. He didn’t trust himself. When he got like this, he would do just about anything for solitude. He didn’t understand it. He loved her, but right now he needed her to be very far from him.

      “Talk to me Jake, what’s going on?”

      “I don’t want to talk. I want you to get the hell out of my face.”

      “Did I do something wrong?”

      “No,” he said, “I just need to be alone right now. It’s not you. Just please, go.”

      “Are you mad because I brought up Charlie?”

      “Fuck you,” he spat between his teeth. “Don’t you see me?”

      She knew what was happening. She’d found him again by some crazy stroke of fate years ago when she was volunteering in a veteran’s hospital. Not even close to the boy she’d left behind only a few years before. And somewhere through the distance of then and now most of that had faded away. Or if it hadn’t, she rarely saw it anymore. But she knew these cues. It had nothing to do with what she said. It was the gunshot. That was all. “Can I trust you not to harm yourself? You can promise me that, can’t you?”

      “Stella, if I had the guts to kill myself, I would have done it a long time ago.”

      “You tried, remember? Just promise me that—“

      “Here’s the keys,” he said fishing them from his pocket and throwing them at her, “now please, go the fuck away.”

      She knew it was the pain talking, but that didn’t stop the tears from forming. “Fine. I’ll be across the river at Beauregard’s if you need me.” She waited for her words to sting.

      Though he’d never raised a hand to Stella, Jacob tensed to keep himself from slapping her now.

      It was a relief when he finally heard the truck start up. He turned the horses out into the back corral and went up to the house. He locked his gun in a safe and grabbed a bottle of Wiser’s and a jar of tranquilizers from the cupboard. Then he retreated into the cave of his room. From habit he reached to latch the door. “Fuck,” he said looking at it mangled and dangling. “Whatever.” He stuck a blank tape in the cassette recorder. There weren’t second chances. You got one. If fate slipped through your hands, that was it. He was too old and too fucked up to believe in anything else. He popped a few of the tranquilizers in his mouth and washed them down with the Wiser’s. Everything was too late now. He reached for his guitar and hit record.

      As the notes ascended from his fingers, green bodies rose from out of the jungle foliage like fog from a river. He played harder, faster, more intricate notes. He had to put them back to sleep, but the lieutenant waved them on. The air was calm, too calm. Absent of noise. He slid his fingers up and down the neck. But the music was fading from his own ears. A nervous sweat ran down Jake’s chafed ass crack. Silence wasn’t golden in this shit hole. When the world went quiet, it was a sign that phantoms lurked out there somewhere—the boogiemen they called Charlie.

      The point man moved his hand in a motion, as if he were patting a dog. The gesture rippled through the formation and the men sank their bodies back into the earth, one by one. The platoon sergeant tapped his head several times and the soldiers scurried to his position. “Cowboy, you and Johnson go scout the far side of that river.” Jake nodded and rose with his rifle at the ready.

      Through the dense brush, Jake could see a slow and lazy river. The water was warm and murky. He closed his eyes and dug deep for strength. It didn’t make sense for a grown man to be so scared of leeches, but ever since his uncle had thrown him in the slough when he was seven... He could still remember his uncle’s laughing face as he had tried to claw his way up the crumbling bank, terrified the life was being sucked out of him right then and there. It took a moment before Jake could step in with his other foot, knowing that those fat black fuckers were in there. It never got easier, and they were the least of his worries.

      His boots were laced tight, and still the water seeped in through the tops of them. He felt as though his legs were two trolling hunks of bait. He needed to put it out of his mind, because Charlie was out there just waiting to take a bead on his ass and end him for good in that river. The water floated up into his olive drab tunic and it billowed out. His skin tingled with vulnerability. With his rifle above his head, he scanned the shore. The leeches were latching on to him, draining the humanity from him. Or maybe humanity was just a dream and it was the shit stinking truth that these leeches were pulling out of him.

      His foot came out of the water and pressed into the soft shore. Then the mouth of the jungle swallowed him again.

      He swept the ground with a wet boot. First the edge, then the toes, the ball, the heel. He did so holding his rifle in one hand and prying at the leeches with the other. The eerie silence followed him into the bush. He cut in an arc to the left and Johnson to the right, until they met back up some distance in. Jake nodded to his buddy, and headed in a straight line toward the river, leaving Johnson in his position.

      He broke through the trees and waved his arm in a large swoop, before stepping back under cover and hunkering down. A machine gunner and his AG ran from the jungle and set up in a position of support.

      The first soldier set out across the murky river, and the rest followed at intervals, strung out like ducks. One of them, a kid from Illinois who was the son of a butcher, flashed a look of panic in Jake’s direction. Jake could make out the tension in his face, and averted his eyes. That sort of thing was contagious.

      A shot split the silence and the tensed eyes went dead. The kid from Illinois slumped into the dark ominous water.

      Zapazazapazazap... zazap.

      It was an explosion of sound. They were under fire! Jacob cowered back under the cover of the jungle. Bullets danced across the river like angry hornets smoked out of their nests. The Sergeant shouted something, and then...

      Everything was silent, like a silent movie, but a different silence than before that first shot. It was an asphyxiating silence.

      The film skipped. There were pieces missing. But the climax—it was in clear focus. The details between changed so often over the year, but the climax was always clear. It was strange the way an experience like that could fill your whole body, even when viewed with the volume turned off.

      He didn’t remember making the call for artillery. He knew it was he who made it, because when the reel stopped skipping, he had the mic in his hand. And that’s where real time began again. Sometime after the call was made. There was the skipping, and then the sharp images of men tearing off their clothes, trying to wash their bodies, as the life drained from them. They picked and rubbed frantically at their stinging flesh, only to further spread the infestation. Those who had reached the bank ran back to the water, hoping to wash away the flaming gobs of tissue burning leeches, known as white phosphorous. The stinking water wasn’t going to stop that shit from burning. A baptism of fire— that’s what had run through Jakes mind. This scene would be called A Baptism of Fire.

      The kid from Illinois floated and bobbed between the smouldering half-corpses like a discarded prop. Looking back on the scene, Jacob wished he could have played the part of the kid from Illinois. That was the lucky role, he thought, as he washed down a few more diazepam with a swig of Wiser’s. But he was the director. He was sure he’d called this shot to be done differently. Not white phosphorous. Why was it that? He knew the most logical reason it fell short was because someone made a mistake in the round they loaded. Not him. Not the coordinates he called. But without being able to see the radio scene, he couldn’t know for sure. He couldn’t erase the doubt from his mind.