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Vol. 1, No. 3

Custer on Mondays
by Jon Billman

      Mr. and Mrs. Owen Doggett celebrated their three-year anniversary by getting a six-pack of Heineken instead of Rainier and toasting the event at home while watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on video.
      A week later, that belly-dancing night at The Mint, Sue said only this: "Three strikes, you're out. The faraway look in the Colonel's eyes was a sure sign he knew she meant it and he didn't shoot back, didn't ask about strike one, strike two.
      Sue calls the legal papers "the treaty." She'll get the waterbed and the microwave. The banana boxes of Harley Davidson parts. The eight-track player and turntable. The veneer bedroom set. The Toyota Corolla and the single-wide.
      The straw that broke the camel's back is named Salome.


      Real live camels. Salome told Colonel and Private about them on her breaks at The Mint. She is an actress. She works the Passion Play during the week and The Mint most Fridays and Saturdays. She also told the Colonel she could arrange a private audition for him because she happened to know for a fact that Pontius Pilate was moving to Florida and the director owed her a few favors that she'd probably never get a chance to cash in on anyway.
      Belly dancing is hard work, she also said. So she took lots of breaks. She was not taking a break when Sue walked in after one of the battles to find her Colonel. Sue found him. The Colonel pleaded with her that it was all part of the act and about how belly dancing was an art form going back to biblical times and that it should be respected.
      Horses, too, they have horses. Doves. Sheep. Donkeys.


      They stop in tiny Alzada for Cokes, oil, gas, beef jerky for Charlie Reynolds, brake fluid, more sunflower seeds. Colonel says to Private, "You want to scrub them mustard bugs off the windshield?" It is Sunday afternoon when they cross the twenty or so miles of the townless northeast corner of Wyoming. Yes, Colonel is trying out for Pontius Pilate, but they will fish, too.
      "Nothing between this car and the North Pole but a barbed-wire fence," Private tells Colonel.
      "Nothing between this car and the South Pole but Mount Rushmore and a fistful of gold mines," Colonel tells Private.
      They cross the Belle Fourche River and see the Black Hills, the sacred land the Indians were afraid of.
      "They heard thunder in there and thought it was the Everywhere Spirit," says Colonel.
      "Maybe they were right," replies Private. "This wind does blow."
      Spearfish, Dakota Territory. The sign at the edge of town has a trout with a spear sticking through it. "Trout are not indigenous to the Black Hills," Colonel says to Private and Charlie Reynolds. "They were stocked, all of them. The Indians speared chubs and suckers. That's all there were."
      The sun is shining and the summer-school coeds are not wearing much. "Welcome to Calvary," says the Colonel.
      The Colonel tells Charlie Reynolds to stay in the car. The dog jumps onto the gravel parking lot of the Shady Spot Motel (phone, free coffee) and high-tails it to a bush, which he immediately sniffs, then waters. Private tackles him and lugs the hound back to the car.
      The Shady Spot rests between the Passion Play amphitheater and the city park Spearfish Creek runs through. Families here enjoy the steady increases in the value of their ranch-styles and don't mind the flash and rumble of the Crucifixion and Ascension three nights a week. There are coffeehouses and bookstores and no bad neighborhoods in Spearfish. No railroad tracks. No reservations.
      "Reservations?" asks the elderly desk clerk, looking them over in their forage caps, Bermuda shorts, T-shirts (Colonel's Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge Tour, Private's Bagelbird), and sandals.
      "Yup. Doggett."
      "You fellas with the Passion Play?" asks the desk clerk.
      "We're Texas Rangers in town on a pornography bust," says Colonel. "You rent by the hour, too?" The desk clerk does not think this is funny, is frowning. Private nods, "Yes, we're here for the Passion Play. There a discount for that?" One dollar.
      Colonel then pays the two-dollar surcharge for Charlie Reynolds after the desk clerk says, still looking down at his reservation book, "I see you brought a dog."


      Her flies are small miracles. Tiny damsels, Daisy Millers, opulent caddis flies in all colors and sizes. Shiny Telico nymphs. Little Adams. Noble royal coachmen. Muddlar minnows and grasshoppers. Bead-heads. Streamers. Hare's ears. Stone flies, salmon flies. Woolly buggers, black gnats, and renegades. She even invented a fly she calls the Libbie Bacon, tied with the soft hair from Charlie Reynolds's belly.
      "It's a shame that you'll now have to buy them, pay for them," Private tells Colonel. But their fly boxes are still worlds of insects: peacock hurl, elk hair, chicken hackle and deer tail, rabbit fur and mallard feather woven to life around a gold hook.
      "And you won't?" asks the Colonel.
      Sue gave Private a full fly box as a Christmas gift the first year he moved to Hardin from Wyoming. Sometimes at night, when he's alone-most every night-and cannot sleep, he opens the box under his reading light and gently touches the flies and his heart speeds up a bit. When he would lose a fly-on a large willow, a snag in the river, maybe a fish-Sue would replace it with one of the same kind but yet different, one thing but also something else. None of her flies are exactly alike. Private pointed this out to Colonel, who still called them "bugs."
      Private started keeping the fly journal the first day he fished with the flies Sue tied for him, the morning of the day after Christmas. It was bitter cold and the guides on the rod kept freezing so that he would have to dip the graphite shaft into the water to de-ice the rod before each cast. Yet he caught more trout than ever in his life.
      Private looks through his fly box while Colonel ties fresh leader and tippet material onto his line. Their plan is to take in tonight's Passion Play (free tickets) and do some fishing tomorrow after the ten o'clock audition. From the motel room window, they can see Calvary, the sturdy cross as big as a pine tree, up the hill to the east of the amphitheater. "Welcome to the Cavalry," says Colonel.
      They were trying to have children-if not directly trying to prevent them is trying. Sue would often say, "I already have my hands full taking care of one boy. I don't need any more." This concerns the Colonel still. Even more so now. His mustache weighs at his lip when he thinks about it too hard.


      Spearfish Creek runs strong and clear through the Passion Play neighborhood. Today you can stand on any bridge in town and peer down at fish feeding against the current. Many healthy rainbows and browns. Colonel's eyes widen as the men count the black silhouettes of trout feeding on the insects that wash their way. Heartbeats quicken. He calls this creek a "river."
      The detachment of three-a colonel, a private, and a basset hound scout-set out into the afternoon sun from the Shady Spot to scout the holes, the "honey buckets," they will fish tomorrow. There are many of these honey buckets running through the backyards of the people who don't mind living in the New Testament neighborhood.
      As they patrol the creek, the troopers wave to the grillers and the gardeners and the fertilizers and waterers, crossing now and then through the cool, calf-deep water in their sandals, though only some of the neighbors wave back; some sheepishly from behind their gazing balls and ceramic deer; some annoyed from behind their smoking Webers; some taken aback with beers in their hands, as if to say, Honey, I think Colonel George Armstrong Custer in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and his basset hound just waded through our backyard.


      Salome did not tell them about this: the hatchery! How could she have left this out? The creek runs under a stonework bridge, and they wade out from the shadow of the bridge and peer through the chain-link and barbed wire NO TRESPASSING fence of what the sign heralds as the D. C. BOOTH FISH HATCHERY, EST. 1896. And for whole moments, minutes, they are old men outside the chain-link of the city swimming pool, Seaworld, Marineland, staring in.
      Tall cottonwoods, oaks, and spruce trees, as well as the flowers that have been planted around each of the three stone-and-concrete rearing pools, reflect off the green-gray water. Two lovers and a family with a stroller and children walk along the boardwalk and gaze into the pools. You can, for a quarter, buy a handful of trout meal from the gumball machine bolted to the railing. Many signs: NO FISHING.
      A young woman in a khaki uniform sows trout meal from a tin bucket. The water boils with feeding fingerlings. Her auburn hair catches the late-afternoon light and is the color of Sunday. She is singing to the fry as she feeds them. Her hand dips into the bucket and she bows slightly and releases the meal. "I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men." Charlie Reynolds chases a butterfly at the edge of the shallow water running over their feet, never catching it, as the men watch, mouths slightly closed, hearts racing. "I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me."
      The lovers and the family stop to lean over the railing and look down into another pool, a larger pool. The father buys a handful of trout food and gives it to the young boy who flings it all at once. The water explodes with trout, trout as big as-or bigger than-the Colonel and Private and Charlie Reynolds have ever seen. "Good Lord, will you look at that! Did you see the size of those fins?" asks the Colonel. "Those tails!"
      "Yes, she is beautiful," says Private in a dry-mouthed whisper.


      The Black Hills Passion Play draws people from all over the country, from all over the world. Colonel and Private have never been here. Young Christians in purple tunics direct cars, sell tickets, sell programs. An official program costs as much as it costs Charlie Reynolds to stay at the Shady Spot, where he is now. Outside the ticket office/gift shop there is a rather graceless statue, Christ Stilling the Waters, by Gutzon Borglum, the artist who blasted four presidents into a mountain just south of here. The Christ of the sculpture looks less like he's stilling waters than waving to friends.
      The evening is cool. The tickets Salome gave them are not excellent, not VIP tickets. The troopers are in the center, the fifty-yard line, but back fifty rows, back far enough to wonder how much real weight Salome pulls around here. But they can see downtown Jerusalem. They can see Calvary. They can see the tall cottonwoods that surround the trout hatchery a couple of blocks away. The troopers stand and remove their forage caps and place them over their hearts for "The Star-Spangled Banner." There is a sliver of moon, not yet a quarter. There is an evening star in the west. The fanfare ends. A blond angel appears in the Great Temple and recites the prologue, "O ye children of God. . . ."
      "It's going to be a long night-look at this program-twenty-two scenes," says Colonel.
      "That which you will experience today, O people, treasure well within your hearts. Let it be the light to lead you-until your last day." With that the angel disappears and the streets of Jerusalem fill with asses, sheep, armored centurions on white stallions, and laughing, running children.
      "Private, did you see the size of those dorsal fins?" says Colonel.
      When the play ends, the troopers are not beseiged with passion, which is a little disappointing to both of them. An hour and a half of Sunday left. The actor has an audition in eleven and a half hours. Pontius Pilate is a muscular, tan, deep-voiced man. No long dirty-blond curls to his shoulders. No bushy handlebar mustache. It will not be easy.


      "Private, you awake?" asks the Colonel at a quarter to midnight.
      "Yes," replies Private. "Thinking about Sue?"
      "The audition tomorrow?"
      "No." Those fish. "Private, did you see those dorsal fins?"

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