Winds picked at the onionskin earth over a town nobody knew about, as a yellow bus began its daily drive, almost thirty miles to the nearest schoolhouse over in the Killdeer Mountains, trying to reach its way over the canyons of the South Dakota skies. They blew along the Red River Valley, and over Red River, a place that had lost its serpent soul ten years ago. Two freckled-faced little boys missed the bus, and their parents would find out about them later, as they bounced their red ball in front of the Blue Dog watering and pisshole bar.
Red River had two bars, the Blue Dog right across the street from the Red Dog. Two stop lights, one funeral home, a church, a bank smashed between McDuffy’s Barber Shop and Rex's Drug Store, serving tasty root beer floats. A town sheriff by the name of Sy Malloy cruised in his truck between the hardware store and prostitutes arriving on the Greyhound out of New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado. Coca Cola-sipping tourists dropped by sometimes to get a crowning taste of the West, or how it used to be when there were gunfights right in the middle of the streets in the early 1800s.
One man owned up most of the stock, property, and bodies in the town. He was big Jim Tillman, and he was a crazy, white-redneck, hairy-backed, mean, son-of-a-bitch, from a long line of big, mean, white-redneck, hairy-backed white men, from a generation that settled the West by killing.
The Dakotas had plenty of men like him, but they didn't have many men like Rufus Long, a half-Indian, half-black cowboy, who lost his way in the dust and gold landscape of what was real and what might get you killed today. His face was as broad as Webster's Dictionary from the storytime shelf. Heavy eyelids fried you like an egg in pearl white yokes. He carried himself like a middleweight boxer with husky shoulders. He stood about six-two and had just gotten back to town after sleeping up in the mountains on different Native American reservations for almost six years. In essence, he was like a slim toothpick sucking on the day in the mouth of a mean wind. He was a man who just sat in silence, eating his steak and French fries with plenty of catsup dabbed on them.
Rufus sipped his beer in the Blue Dog. A yellow day with white clouds. He smelled smoky, whiskey breaths of old friends and old enemies coming to greet him. He had a cowboy hat on his head with a three-button-down cowhide jacket, blue shirt, old blue jeans, and a good pair of cowboy boots. He also had door-hinge hands accused of strangling the life out of a dream of fate if he didn't agree with it in the first place.
Long's world was stuffed in a blender. He didn't need it anymore. He was trash in a world of the past, a curious man placed upside down on the wrong shelf between American History and Cajun Cooking. They had his number, confidentially. He didn't know the time of day in the bottom of the Blue Dog. And if it wasn't for his longtime buddy, he would be dead right now for even stepping through the door.
His best friend Injun Joe's face was a truck with no brakes. Braids falling on each side of his shoulders, he kept a big knife on his hip and loved to throw it at snakes. He had the almond-shaped, brown eyes of a cat. A short guy with a degree from UC Berkeley in geology and a penchant for smoking good weed, Johnny Walker Red whiskey was really Joe’s best friend. He never met a bottle that talked back or even shot at him. He had a mean penchant for killing every white man who had stolen land and money from his people since the sixteenth century.
Rufus Long was high; what a shame. He was glad to see his friend, who woke him up in the middle of a goddamn dream.
"You okay?" Injun Joe asked. He knew Rufus had always had the pride of kings. He was a man who robbed time. But he had left behind a lot of bad blood in Red River for not dying with them boys in Southeast Asia.
"I'm more than okay," Rufus said. They had grown up together like bell-ringers from the age of seven.
"Fuck 'em, Rufus," Joe shouted. "I'm not going to tolerate any man in here staring at you cross-eyed!"
"Don't push it," Rufus said in a calming voice. "Topic of discussion around here is who's going to gut me first?"
"They mad at losing the war," Joe said. "That's all." He waved to some of the bobtail women coming down the stairs.
Rufus squinted in the blue smoke. “They called it a conflict.” He frowned at his past in the woods, living on deer and rabbit, with juicy apple Indian women. “And they’re mad as hell at me…” he stuck a finger in his chest, “for coming home to get my ranch back. Ain’t any of their bizness my friend.” Rufus took a drink. “They think it is.”
Joe could see that his friend was upset in the smudged bar lights — six square windows of pain behind him. His face registered limited letters to home. As old sayings go, he was a man who knocked on the doors of death.
And Joe knew Rufus was his friend. A man who shook in the voices of whispers in a room, waiting for someone to pull a gun on him, couldn't everyone see that he was not the enemy? He was just a man with ideas under a windowpane view of Greyhound buses bringing in caskets of dead friends.
"Everybody knows," Joe said. "Black Wolf waited hard. She was proud of what you were done. You were no coward in her eyes."
Rufus looked around the stench of drunken cowboy desperadoes decreeing their love for a woman sitting on a bar stool, waiting for a sweet valley ride. He saw everybody drinking up, eating chicken, steaks, sucking on whores' ears and spending plenty of money on a television war that was just about over, one that we all watched every day and night over our frozen TV dinners. He lit up a cigarette under a heavy drunk of burned-tip fingers.
Heartburn-beautiful women shimmied, to "Sweet Georgia Brown" on top of the bar. Men drank up, singing with them, spending more cash on their legs cocked and open to the homicidal rages of love.
"How much?" Rufus asked the cranberry pretty woman.
"Twenty-five for you cowboy."
Rufus looked up into a pair of dark Egyptian eyes. She was sixteen or eighteen? He tasted her red mouth as her great tongue flapped his wings. He chose lap dance instead.
"Hold on tight, baby." She bent down. "Are you ready for these sweet lips?" Sumaya kissed his nose, took his hat off, and straddled him in the chair. She spoke in his ear. "Awww! That’s right, right there." He realized she was going into his zipper. Her skirt rose like a pie in heat as they got lost in a three-minute love song of "Yesterday."
He paid the Angel of Bedrooms; she reluctantly left.
Rufus received a second warm welcome-home hug from Betsy McDougal. She could have been a B movie star and was still one of the main attractions to spend money on in the bar. "How are you doing, Rufus?" She kissed him. "Welcome back."
He couldn't laugh too much or sing. It would surely bring all hell on his head this day. He had to be quiet when he sniffed around his old friends in their twenties. Be prepared when he spotted Mike Johnson with no legs, Ralph Baxter with no arms. Eugene Bell's hot musical talent had been cut away from his throat with shrapnel. They couldn't get it all out. His Homey, Cleve Worley, was blind from some shit they dusted in the air. Reggie Gilley couldn't ride the bulls anymore after they shot off most of his left butt-cheek. Alvin Turner's face was scarred on the left, half of his nose blown off on the right. He was a Cheerios mess.
Not many knew this, but Rufus had a gun stuffed down in his back pants. Not many wanted to try him right then. Maybe later on... down the road. Call him up and he'd be ready to spit in your eyes. Only the crazy would try him.
And the only crazy one was Jim Tillman, who had just come in off the streets, out of his black sixty-five Cadillac. He shook hands, slapped backs when he got up to the bar. He greeted his friends, mostly sun-harvest white men. They nudged ... whispered to him over a shot of two-finger scotch. He threw the steam down his throat, glanced up in the mirror facing him, over the bartender with the handlebar mustache. His days of prayer were answered: he saw the son-of-a-bitch Rufus Long with Sumaya on his lap at the back tables under an old war portrait of Chief Running Dog, a tribute to a man his great granddaddy had killed to steal what was coming to the Tillman clan, Indian lands.
Tillman washed his mustache with his long tongue. He had the cold blue eyes of a mythic Norse god who ate ice on the coldest days of the year up in the Dakota foothills. Women were scared of the face of this murderous lion. He would lick the salt from paw-hands after a big night of poker when he was the winner. His thinning, fifty-five-year-old brown hair stood up under his bone-white hat. Fat rosy cheeks got redder as he talked to one of his ranch hands, Bobby Mayhem, an ex-LSD hippie escapee. "How long's he been back?" Jim asked.
"Two, three days, sir," Bobby said. "He came back to bury Black Wolf." He looked up into the face of a man who had helped him stop being a bum in the streets. "You want me to kill him, Mr. Tillman?"
“Do what you got to do.”