Stella looked in the gas station mirror inspecting her teeth for coffee grounds. She was a full blown java addict, but percolated coffee, especially the kind that had boiled over, was not her thing. She needed something more refined to wash the taste from her mouth.
She settled for French-Vanilla from an automated machine.
The line at the counter was long. She picked at the plastic lid, thinking very seriously about abandoning the cup and just hitting a Tim Horton’s drivethrough.
The door jingled, for the hundredth time since she’d filled the cup, and for the hundredth time she turned toward the noise. In walked a cowboy with a swagger that was physically verbose for his lack of height. They hadn’t changed much. Bullriders were still cut from the same cloth as back in her day. He looked her up and down in a way that made her skin crawl. She was about to cross her eyes and stick her tongue out at him, but his attention quickly turned from her.
The bullrider narrowed his eyes on the new subject of his attention. “Hey, Black Bull.”
The other man gave a small nod. It was friendly, but not inviting.
“So, I paid you back last night.”
She watched the suspicion knit itself into the man’s brow.
“Remember how you took my girlfriend home with you, after her little strip dance?”
“I helped her out. Nothing happened.”
“Yeah, well I returned the favour last night. I had her ass right there and ready, but then I figured she’s more used up than I like them. Too much of that bareback riding. Wasn’t worth my time, so I turned her out.”
Stella stepped aside. She was sure the taller cowboy was going to knock the rest of the little guy’s teeth out. The customers ahead of her bunched closer to the counter keeping their eyes fixed on the developing action.
The man gritted his teeth. “I don’t know what Charlie ever saw in you.”
“Charlie?” said the Bullrider. “Charlie? Gypsy? Mrs. Black Bull? Fuck I can’t keep up.”
The taller cowboy met the little one toe to toe. “You think this is a game? When do you say enough is enough and stop screwing with her?” He grabbed the bullrider by his shirt. The muscles in his face twitched, but the force of intense discipline held him back. “And the name’s not Black Bull. I’ll teach you so you won’t forget it, if you want.”
The swagger ran down the little guy's leg, into an invisible puddle of ego on the floor.
The larger one let him go, butted ahead of the line, threw two twenty dollar bills on the counter, and walked out.
“See you later, Black Bull,” Cody called after him, but not loud enough Riley could actually hear.
Stella tapped the bullrider on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” she said, preparing to say something sassy and smartass.
“Hey, aren’t you that American gold-digger? How do you feel about my ex keeping your boyfriend busy while you’re away?”
“You know,” she said, in an overly civilized tone, “you’re one sorry little prick.” Her movements were so calm and rational he couldn’t see it coming. She carefully pried the lid off the coffee, and having decided she didn’t really want it after all, flicked her wrist and emptied it straight into his crotch.
She was so done with taking any man’s shit decades ago. It just felt too good to give it right back. She cackled like a wicked old hag all the way to Tim Horton’s.
For her first visit to a bar, Stella wasn’t doing so well. She crossed the tavern floor, barely standing. She would have collapsed in a clumsy heap on the floor, if the man in the nice suit who accompanied her didn’t take a tight grip on her arm. A teen with her first taste of booze, she staggered out into the night; feeling more confident about holding her unstable stomach in the cool nair, but before she made it back to Beauregard’s Cadillac the turbulent beast in her guts awoke and leapt from her mouth. Her new custodian held her loose hair back from her face.
“There, there,” he said. “Too much of a good things is never a good thing.”
When she was done, he helped her into the back seat of his car where she drifted off into a deep sleep. They arrived at their destination well after midnight. The slowing momentum of the car woke her. She arose from the back seat enough to see a cluster of cowboys, clumped around a campfire, through the windshield. A few of them stirred in the illumination of the headlights. She lay her head back down on the stiff upholstery. Her imagination had fooled her. She’d thought that playing an Indian princess in a Wild West show meant being part of some glamorous Roy Rogers travelling troop, something romantic like in the old movie pictures the nuns showed a few times a year. Seeing the mangy, shivering cowboys camped out on a fairground’s lawn looked anything but romantic.
“Well, we’re here,” Beauregard said, putting the car into park. She was relieved to find she wasn’t expected to camp out like the cowboys, and was thankful to take the one half of a thin mattress that was offered to her in a rundown Arrow Stream—that was, until her half turned into a third, and then a quarter. Finally, she sought the safety of the seat at the kitchen table, which even in her drunken state did not allow her much sleep.
The morning came early and with it an aching bladder. She went outside to find somewhere to squat. The cowboys were already awake and busy putting up the panels of an arena. She could sense their eyes following her from beneath their hats, as she picked her way cautiously across the dewy field to a small thicket of brush. She felt like a mouse being stalked by coyotes.
Beauregard was awake by the time she returned. He sat at the table, bare-chested, sipping from a tin coffee cup. His shoulders were unusually broad. Stella had attributed their size to the cut of the suit he had been wearing, but she could now see that while he was thin, he was also strong and chiseled. She studied his hairless, shirtless body. She smiled. He was easy on the eyes.
He did not return the smile. “Did you sleep much last night?” he asked her.
“It shows. You look like shit. Get yerself some sleep. You’re going to be my big draw now, so I don’t need some haggard looking squaw. I see in this light that you have freckles. I don’t want you to leave this trailer without brushing some of this on your face first.” He handed her a small container of dark minerals. “Now, get some sleep.”
Stella took the make-up. She tucked it into the cloth she had wrapped all her things from the school in, and crawled into bed. It was still warm and smelled of strange man sweat, but she was weary and closed her eyes. As she lay there she wondered what kind of man she was now dealing with. She certainly didn’t like the way he referred to her as a ‘squaw’.
Sleep did not come until well after she’d heard Beauregard leave the trailer. Even then it was light and erratic. But somewhere in the morning she must have drifted off to sleep. She’d jumped when he touched her shoulder with a gentle hand. The burning orb of sun was now too high to be directly seen through the trailer windows. It had to be at least noon. She sat upright on the edge of the bed, unsure what to expect.
“You know some dances, right?” he asked her.
“Maybe,” she said, “from a long time ago. I don’t know if I remember.” Her heart rose up in her chest and with it doubt.
“You know any other dances? Sexy ones?”
“I’ve seen girls dancing in the movies.”
“Good enough. I can teach you. Try this on,” he said handing her a package wrapped in brown paper. She undid the string and opened it. Inside was a buckskin dress, covered with a million tiny glass beads. The smell reminded her of a home she knew she would not likely see again.
“It’s beautiful. Who made it?” she asked, running her fingers over the meticulous beadwork.
“I did,” said Beauregard opening a bottle of whiskey and pouring some into a glass. “Try it on.”
Stella’s trust was rapidly waning. She looked from him to the floor. Did he mean for her to undress right here in front of him?
Beauregard tipped the whiskey down his gullet, then turned his back to her.
The dress was smooth against her skin and that smoky smell broke her heart with longing. It was tight and she had to tug it over her hips.
Beauregard turned around and she held in her belly as best she could. He sucked a front tooth. “Yes, you will do just fine. And make sure you put this on, too,” he said, taking a box from a small closet. He opened it and drew out a large feathered headdress. He reached out, taking the liberty to finger a lock.“You’re hair isn’t dark enough and it's far too short. I’ll get you a wig in the next town.” He let her hair fall back against her cheek, poured himself another whiskey and left the trailer.
The dress was beautiful, but how long could she squeeze into it? She looked at herself sideways in the mirror and admired the sleek profile she made. Then, she let out her breath and relaxed her posture, a bump emerged in the reflection. It was hard to believe that inside that belly was probably a tiny living creature. Her hand caressed the protrusion softly. A mother? She might be a mother. She said the word out loud to feel it on her tongue. “Mother.”
The door swung open, jarring her back to awareness. As she stood there startled, sucking in her belly, the look on Beauregard’s face told her everything. “Damn fuckin’ whore,” he said, storming in toward her. “I paid $100 for a piece of knocked up trash? No wonder the sisters wanted to be rid of you so bad.”
“$100?” she shot back. “Well, you paid too much. The government probably didn't give them that much for me in a year and I’m fifteen now. I was going to be out of there in the next few months anyway.” She reached for the headdress and threw it to the floor, giving him a defiant look.
He grabbed her by the hair and she had to bend her neck to alleviate the strain he was putting on her. “Well, sweetheart, don’t you worry. I can make that back off you in a night. Those white guys out there just love to sink their pricks into girls like you, when they don't have to feel all civilized and repentant about it. Didn’t your mama teach you that? ”
She pulled back so hard that a fistful of her hair came away in his hand. She yanked at the buckskin dress, but the seams were too strong to rip it from her body. It clung to the damp angry perspiration that covered her skin. She tugged it again and dragged it up over her head and threw it in his face. “You have no right. I’ve taken enough shit from white men in my life. I sure as hell am not going to take shit from some smelly, whiskey-soaked, drunken heathen of a damnable Indian.”
The back of his hand was hard against the side of her head. Not the face. The head. The thud of it registered before the fact that she’d been hit. She took it without a tear and met him with a glare.
“Indian, hey?” His black eyes narrowed so near to her that she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I already told you, I’m whatever I tell you I am.”
Stella stared back at him, too enraged to be embarrassed that she was half naked. “I don’t care what you think you are...”
One of his large powerful hands ripped her backward onto the bed. He was on top of her and struggling was useless. He was shoving himself inside her before she could comprehend what his intentions were. “You know what I am right now? I’m your daddy. That’s right. And you do what daddy tells you.”
He held her tight against the mattress, as if he expected her to fight, but she didn’t. She’d long since learned that it was better to just wait for it to be over. She drifted from the nauseating smell of whiskey and sweat to a happy place where her spirit could free itself from the horrors of the body. She thought of the horses— paints, appaloosas, palominos, roans— all of them running across grassy plains— owned by no man, free. It was a game she had perfected, hide-and-seek in a place where no one could ever find her, or hurt her. She was running free with the horses across the plains.
The dream broke, as he pulled off her. "Go wash your cunt," he said, zipping his pants up.
It didn't matter. Somewhere in the back of her mind she’d already made a plan.