Read Prairie Gothic Online

Authors: J.M. Hayes

Prairie Gothic

Prairie Gothic

Prairie Gothic

J.M. Hayes

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2003 by J.M. Hayes

First Edition 2003

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2002114467

ISBN: 1-590580-50-8 Hardcover

ISBN: 978-1-61595-090-4 Epub

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

Poisoned Pen Press

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For Barbara, of course,
and for Jodi, Kita, and Charlie, three sisters to an only child.


Which leaves Kansas just about the same
as anyplace else that hasn't as yet
had the benefit of the civilizing
influence of the Mafia operating on
the local level. Where ordinary man's
sins, repentances, and hopes are
of no more consequence than some
long gone Indian vision quest.

—Earl Thompson
A Garden of Sand

Deep in the heart of a country trying desperately
to remember itself.

—John Stewart
“Ghost of the Superchief”

Prairie Gothic

Mad Dog parked his Saab behind the Texaco by the row of evergreens that defended the gas station from the north wind. Their ranks were bent and wounded from the strain. In winter, winds from the north assault everything in Kansas with the ferocity barbarians from that direction traditionally employed to savage civilization: Huns, Goths, Mongols, Athabascans—even Cornhuskers. At 5:30 on an icy-gray January morning in Buffalo Springs, Kansas, the open Texaco was as close to an outpost of civilization as you could find for a good fifty miles in any direction.

Considering his cargo, he probably shouldn't have stopped at all, but, with the hatchback open to accommodate the old man's height, Mad Dog was about twice as cold as he'd expected, and he'd expected to be damn near freezing.

Mad Dog skittered across the icy parking lot, past the vacant gas pumps, and let himself into a bright and cheerful interior, a shrine to American commercialism and the antithesis to most of the rest of economically depressed Buffalo Springs. The place was filled with virtually every form of candy and snack food—a cornucopia of items guaranteed to heighten your risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack, or simple obesity. There was also a huge display of tobacco products by the front counter. Mad Dog found himself wondering why they didn't just add a rack for cocaine and heroin and be done with it.

And speaking of addictive substances…He made his way to the row of coffee machines, now offering a limited range of exotic flavors like Mocha and French Vanilla and even Sinnamon spelled with an S, confirming the suspicions of many a local fundamentalist.

“Morning, Mad Dog.” The woman behind the counter raised her head from a Nancy Pickard mystery and gave him a friendly wave. It diverted Mad Dog's attention just long enough to put him face to face with the deputy sheriff before even noticing him. Under the circumstances, Mad Dog would have jumped and gasped, only he was too cold for his body to react. He jerked just enough for the hood to his parka to slide off the back of his shaved head. His hair was too curly for the braids he wanted so he'd been shaving it instead for years.

How had he missed the sheriff's cruiser that must be parked out front? Maybe he really was on the verge of hypothermia.

“Geez, Mad Dog. You crazy, driving around with the hatch on your Saab open on a morning like this?” The thermometer outside the front door read twenty-six degrees, though it hung in a comfy spot insulated from the wind chill factor.

Mad Dog's advantage in these situations was that most folks did think he was crazy. He had, over years of carving out his niche as village oddball, established a tradition of acts so strange and monumental that almost nothing he did anymore caused real surprise.

“Morning, Deputy,” Mad Dog managed. His mouth was cold enough to fumble most of the consonants. “I'm in desperate need of some coffee.”

Deputy Wynn stepped aside and leaned casually against a rack of potato chips. He and the rack tipped too far to make a recovery and both ended up on the floor, colorful bags of chips scattering the length of the aisle.

Wynn had a reputation too. Folks in Benteen County had given him a nickname, “Wynn Some, Lose Some,” on account of the young man's tendency to do the latter.

Mad Dog and the woman from behind the counter helped Wynn set the rack back in place and rearrange the bags of chips so the ones he'd crushed weren't too obvious.

“What you transporting so early and on such a rotten day?” Even the chips hadn't diverted the deputy's troublesome curiosity.

“Just some more of those signs,” Mad Dog fibbed. He'd added to his reputation since the Supreme Court stepped in to settle the presidential election in George W. Bush's favor in December. Conservative, solidly Republican Benteen County had been more than a little shocked that Harvey Edward Mad Dog wanted to impeach five members of the court as a result, or, failing that, persuade folks it was time to man the barricades and reclaim American democracy. Mad Dog thought the Court's ruling had suspended it. He had petitions he wanted them to sign. These weren't proving nearly as popular as the ones he'd circulated demanding Mr. Clinton's resignation for lying about Ms. Lewinski.

“Lord have mercy, Mad Dog. Does the sheriff know you're still doing that?”

“Englishman knows. The rule of law may have been rescinded in America, but my brother's still in favor of free speech. Aren't you, Wynn?”

“No wonder they call you Mad Dog,” the deputy observed. “You get your teeth into something, you just won't let go.”

Actually, they called him Mad Dog because that was his legal name. He'd been born Harvey Edward Maddox, but disgust with his long-gone father and fascination with his Cheyenne heritage (until she died, his mother, Sadie Maddox, always explained she was half Cheyenne, half wildcat) had caused him to formally adopt his nickname. He'd earned it as the star of the last Buffalo Springs High School football team to win more games than it lost.

Mad Dog's nickname had proved inadvertently responsible for the sheriff's, as well. Sheriff English was Mad Dog's half brother. They shared the same Cheyenne lineage on their mother's side, though the sheriff, who sort of looked the part, didn't take it very seriously. The sheriff's father had come along years after Papa Maddox left the county. When Harvey Edward earned his sobriquet bowling over defenders, setting a record for yardage gained that still stood decades later, his little brother found himself stuck with a nickname of his own. “You got a Mad Dog,” Sadie had said, “you got to have an Englishman.” Mad Dog adored his nickname as much as the sheriff hated his. Only family got away with using it anymore. Most folks called him Sheriff, but if you mentioned Englishman, everyone in Benteen County knew who you meant.

“I got a petition to recall those five justices out in the car. You want to sign it?” That was about the surest way he could think of to keep Wynn away from the Saab. “Or, I've still got that one that says Kansas' schools should teach evolution.”

Mad Dog paid for his coffee at the counter, and, because he was too nervous to eat at the moment, passed on the chocolate-covered donuts he'd been anticipating. In spite of his threats to Wynn's political soul, and the cruel cold, the deputy trailed him out the door.

“You see anything suspicious as you drove through town this morning?” Wynn inquired, taking on a tone of grave importance.

“Just the vacant buildings and the boarded-up windows that argue Buffalo Springs is already a ghost town. Why?”

“The phantom snowballer struck again last night. Put one square in the middle of the windshield of Supervisor Bontrager's car as he drove in on Main Street, coming back from a Blue Dragon's basketball game over to Hutchinson. Pretty near put him head first into the building across from Klausen's Funeral Parlor.”

“Supervisor was probably speeding, like usual.”

Wynn nodded and, to Mad Dog's surprise, continued to follow him toward the Saab.

“Then shouldn't you be patrolling?” The last person Mad Dog wanted to explain the old man to was Deputy Wynn.

“Yeah, maybe. But then I figure anybody's out this time of morning, before Bertha's Cafe or Dillon's Grocery opens up, they're eventually gonna end up here to get warm. I got me a list of customers who've been in. Maybe I'll see one or two more. The phantom snowballer likes to strike real early or real late. Likes to hit folks on the way to work. He even got my dad last week.”

Wynn's dad was most of the reason Wynn Some, Lose Some had managed to keep his badge over the years. Wynn Senior was Chairman of the Benteen County Board of Supervisors and had a lot to say about the annual budget for the sheriff's office.

Mad Dog paused against the side of the Texaco. The wind was sneaking through gaps in his clothing he hadn't known existed. It threatened to crystallize his ears. He paused and snugged the parka up around his face. There was no way Mad Dog was going any closer to the Saab with Wynn along. In fact, the deputy already seemed far too interested in what was protruding from the Saab's interior and resting on its back bumper.

Mad Dog turned and started back toward the entry to the Texaco. “You know, I think maybe I need to go back in. Get me the key to the restroom and take a whiz.”

“What's that you got in there?” Wynn asked, bending down and peering into the wind as if a few inches would give him a better angle on the Saab.

“Hey, maybe that's the snowballer pulling into the pumps out front,” Mad Dog offered, getting a little desperate. The pickup belonged to a seventy-something farmer on his way to the usual breakfast gathering at Bertha's. The man had rheumatism so bad he could hardly drive, let alone hurl snowballs.

“What's wrapped up in that blanket?” Wynn was staring at what Mad Dog knew were a pair of bare feet atop his bumper.

Mad Dog briefly considered crowning the deputy with something hard and heavy and making a break for it. He couldn't. He was a pacifist. Besides, nothing suitably club-like was handy.

Wynn took a couple of steps beyond the corner of the building. The wind rocked him and he skidded on a patch of ice. He started to turn back toward Mad Dog with a puzzled look on his face. His hat flew off and the deputy dropped like a stone, the back of his head plastered with the remains of a snowball that had come from somewhere in the vicinity of the row of cars awaiting repairs at the other end of the Texaco.

Wynn did a Charlie Chaplin imitation regaining his feet. Mad Dog would have found it funnier if Wynn hadn't drawn his service revolver and inadvertently pointed it Mad Dog's way.

“Who did that? Where is he?” Wynn demanded.

“Over in those cars.” Mad Dog pointed with a coffee cup already too cool to steam.

“I'll get him this time,” Wynn howled, slip-sliding across the lot and into the maze of cars. Mad Dog took advantage of the moment to reclaim his Saab. As he aimed it onto the blacktop and headed south, he glanced in the rearview mirror. Wynn Some, Lose Some was on his hands and knees, impersonating a hockey puck on its way to a goal on the far side of Main Street.


The man with the dark complexion, the high cheekbones, and just enough votes in the last election to retain the office of sheriff parked his pickup in the lot beside the former Hotel Benteen. In its day, the three-story brick structure had boasted the finest accommodations on the Great Plains—at least between Hutchinson and Dodge City. Its day was more than seventy years gone, though, corresponding with the brief boom that created Buffalo Springs, then ended in the Great Depression and a pretty fair Dust Bowl. After a series of incarnations that included offices, a cheap rooming house, and cheaper yet storage, it had recently blossomed again as a bastion of the latest growth industry, the retirement home—a warehouse for the elderly.

The parking lot was hardly crowded. Not many visitors this early on yet another gloomy January day. The morning commuter jam crowded nearby streets with a car every few minutes. The sheriff slipped his truck between a patch of ice and a muddy snowdrift, pushed open his door, snuggled down in his jacket, and fought the wind and the uncertain footing to the entrance.

The man who met him in the reception area was short and pudgy. He wore an expensive suit that couldn't be purchased in Buffalo Springs. The reception area was bright and cheerful, a remarkable contradiction to the deteriorating downtown just outside. A cage full of brilliantly colored birds sang delicate melodies at the far end of the room. A pair of ancient white heads nodded unconsciously to the rhythm, but turned their attention to the entry the moment the sheriff swung it open.

“Thank you for coming, Sheriff. We're all terribly concerned.” The man in the suit had a soft voice and a similar handshake.

The sheriff wasn't wearing a uniform, just Levis over long johns, boots, work shirt, and a wool-lined leather jacket turned up against the wind. Pinned somewhere under there was a badge, but folks in Benteen County didn't need to see it. Everyone knew him.

The sheriff doffed his hat. His momma had taught him gentlemen didn't wear hats indoors. The Kansas wind made it difficult to wear one outdoors as well, but tradition demanded otherwise. He wished he could remember the chubby guy's name. He was a Sorenson, the sheriff thought, but on his mother's side. Better just get down to business.

“Where's the baby?”

“Baby? I'm sorry. No babies here, Sheriff. This is a retirement community. It's poor old Mr. Irons we're concerned about. He's terribly ill, you know. Terminal, really. And now he's gone and disappeared. If he's outside, he won't last long in this weather.”

“I'm confused,” the sheriff said. “I just got a message from Mrs. Kraus over at the office. She said she had a call from here about someone finding a baby.”

“Oh dear, no. That can't be. There must be a mistake.” The soft man turned to the woman behind the front desk. “Lucille, do you have any idea what this baby thing is about?”

Lucille Martin was a big woman, as old as some of the clients she was serving. She was well known for the authoritarian efficiency she had perfected in her previous career as an elementary school teacher. The sheriff recalled her enthusiasm at applying rulers to knuckles. She was hardly the sort of caregiver he would want seeing to the welfare of his elderly parents, but fortune had already carried them beyond her reach. His mother had died years ago and he had no idea who or where his father was. A foreign soldier doing temporary duty at a nearby weather station, rumor had it. Most folks thought his mother, Cheyenne Sadie, hadn't even known the man's name, that she'd just chosen his nationality when it came time to put something down on English's birth certificate.

“Good morning, Sheriff,” Lucille Martin said. Though he was the authority figure these days, her disapproving glare still inspired guilt feelings. He felt like he'd neglected a homework assignment.

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