Originally published in the April 4, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane learned from his sister in Spokane that a man was in town looking for him. Miller couldn’t be sure if it was Connor or Heffner — either way, it was bad news — and he decided that he and Carleen needed to get out of Washington state. They headed for the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon, joined by Miller’s friend, Avery, a former Black Panther. Miller has been on the run with 8-year-old Carleen, trying to keep her away from Connor, her estranged father, while her mother is stuck in jail. Before this, Miller had been traveling across America, conning the survivors of mass shootings, including a man named Heffner, who’s come unhinged with rage and grief.
They made it to the Roundup in time for the Grand Entry, in time for Miller and Avery to get a beer and Carleen to get pizza and pretzels and ice cream and licorice, the stands a sea of cowboy hats and feed caps on the men, most of the women bare headed, everyone wearing sunglasses, and after the first riders — flag bearers — rode into the stadium bearing American and Canadian and Tribal flags, and after the anthem was sung, all those cowboy hats and feed caps held over hearts went back onto heads, the announcer’s voice booming that he was pleased to present the queen and her royal court.
“The queen?” Carleen said.
“And her royal court,” Miller said.
“Entering from the east,” the announcer said, “Princess Delia Flynn!”
“Oh!” Carleen said.
Into the arena charged a princess, glorious in her white cowgirl hat and pink fuzzy chaps flapping, waving to the crowd like mad, and before she was halfway across the field, another princess was introduced, from the west entrance, then another from the east, and another from the west, all of them riding and waving, the spindly lower legs of their horses a blur of pink wrapping, the same pink as their chaps, until the queen herself was introduced.
“Oh!” Carleen said again, as the queen charged into the arena, jumping over a low bumper on the far side of the track and barreling across the grass infield, then over another low bumper and onto the track itself, cowgirl princesses flying behind her, the crowd cheering, flag bearers riding hell bent for leather behind the royal entourage, music booming.
“Let ’er buck!” the announcer said, and the crowd shouted, “Let ’er buck,” and then the president of the Roundup was introduced, charging onto the dirt track amongst the swirl of riders, the theme from Bonanza blaring, the announcer shouting, “The wild and wooly West is alive, folks! You’ve got to say it with me now — Let ’er buck!” and everyone shouted it again, Carleen loudest, a bucking bronco erupting from one of the chutes, its rider a ragdoll flopping, but holding on. “The bucking horse of the year,” the announcer reported, and again the crowd went wild, as did the horse and rider bucking around the grass infield. Three black-shirted, black-hatted, sunglass-wearing, alpaca-chapped rodeo authorities surrounded the bronc, herding it, one of the animal-handling cops pulling the rider onto his own horse, the other two leading the bucking horse off the field. A second saddle bronc rider burst from a shoot, flipping and flopping and bucking and broncing, until he too was surrounded by the alpaca-chapped animal authorities.
“This is definitely better than baseball,” Avery said.
Why wasn’t everyone doing this all the time?
“Let ’er buck,” Carleen yelled as the Indian relay started, each rider racing bareback around the track, sliding off his first horse while still in motion and jumping onto the next, then around again and onto another, a horse and human frenzy.
“It’s amazing!” Carleen said.
“It is,” Miller said.
“Mom wouldn’t like it,” Carleen said.
“I think you’re right,” Miller said.
“But I like it,” Carleen said, until a cowboy launched himself from a galloping horse onto a charging steer, taking the animal down by its horns and twisting him by his head into the dirt.
They got another beer. They got popcorn and popsicles and nachos and French fries. Back at their seats, the bull riding was much better than the steer wrestling, as far as Carleen was concerned, because the bulls always won. “I didn’t know cowboys were this real,” she said.
“I didn’t either,” Miller said.
Their names were Boudreaux and Tristan and Tanner and Chance.
And the barrel-racing cowgirls were Tillar and Chandra and Raelin and Kai.
Carleen gripped Miller’s hand. “Why does she have to whip him,” she said.
“To make him go faster,” Miller said.
“I thought that’s why she kicked him,” Carleen said.
“I don’t think it hurts him,” Miller said. “I think it’s just to remind him.”
“She really loves him,” Carleen said. “Look how she pets him.”
“And how she leans in to talk to him.”
“If it is a him.”
“It is,” Miller said.
“Let ’er buck,” Carleen said, and after the barrel racing they headed toward the teepees in the Tribal Village, hundreds of them, Carleen transfixed by a girl in a beaded dress, shells jingling from strings down her chest and back.
“Do you have to be an Indian to wear that?” Carleen whispered to Miller.
“I think so,” Miller said. “But there are other things you can wear,” and Carleen said, “Like what?” and Miller said, “Lots of things.”
They followed the girl to a grassy area where drummers were singing and driving the dancers. They watched and listened and when it was over they walked out of the Roundup toward Avery’s car.
“I could probably wear a cowgirl hat,” Carleen said.
“Sure you could,” Miller said.
They had one more day of rodeo, plus the pageant tomorrow night, Happy Canyon, which Miller was dreading, a Buffalo Bill Wild West show celebrating — something.
“If a French dude can name his wine Cayuse,” Avery said, “you can wear a cowgirl hat.” And to Miller: “You ever been to that tasting room?”
Miller shook his head.
“I went a couple years ago,” Avery said, “all these stupid ass names for the wine — Widowmaker, Bionic Frog, stuff like that. The vineyard’s only a few miles from the Mission, on what used to be Cayuse land, but there’s no mention of what happened, the winemaker a wine duke from France come to wrest holy juice from the rocky Western soil. It’s about the struggle of the vines, they tell you, the biodynamic farming methods, all this bullshit. I said to the woman there, I said, ‘Who names these wines anyway?’ and she said ‘Christophe himself probably’ — that’s the wine duke — and I said, ‘Well, I got an idea for some names: how about a Massacre white? Or maybe an Execution red?’ which I thought was pretty goddamn funny — I mean, really — but she didn’t laugh.”
Miller didn’t either.
“I don’t get it,” Carleen said.
“That’s ’cause it’s not funny,” Avery said.
They drove in silence for a while, toward Shelly’s house in La Grande, where they’d left the motorhome that morning.
“Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t a cowgirl,” Carleen said, “because she was a pioneer.”
“That’s true,” Avery said.
“And a farmer,” Miller said.
“But she loved horses,” Carleen said.
“And she was a writer, too,” Miller said.
“People can be lots of things,” Avery said.
“I could wear a bonnet,” Carleen said.
“Sure you could,” Miller said.
“Do you think I could go back to school now?” Carleen said.
It was the second week of September and she hadn’t asked for days. She wanted a normal life — of course she did. Maybe he’d settle them someplace safe, enroll her in school ’til Lizzie got out.
“But right now we’re working on our history book,” Miller said.
“Which is like school,” Avery said, “traveling and seeing stuff.”
Carleen didn’t say anything.
Avery said, “Did I tell you Shelly’s niece is coming for dinner?”
Miller could study third grade curriculum and start teaching her, so that when she did start up again — January say, or sooner even — she wouldn’t be behind. Not that she’d be behind, as smart as she was.
“Bella’s her name,” Avery said.
“I want to go to school,” Carleen said.
“I know you do,” Miller said. “We’ll figure it out.”
“When?” Carleen said.
“Soon,” Miller said, but he didn’t know when — or where.
“She might have a horse,” Avery said.
Somewhere far away.
“Really? Carleen said.
“Or a steer or a donkey or a bull — ”
“Okay, cat man,” Carleen said.
Avery laughed. “I think I’m going to Katmandu,” he said.
Carleen laughed too.
Miller didn’t know how he’d enroll her if she wasn’t his kid. They’d have to make up a story — lies on top of lies. Or maybe he’d just say she was his kid, and who could say otherwise? Maybe another day of rodeo was just what they needed, even if did include a lying Wild West show. At least there’d be cowgirls and princesses and clowns and broncos and cowboys and Indians and hot dogs. Avery was right. The rodeo was better than baseball.
Originally published in the April 11, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen are now in La Grande, Oregon, not far from the Pendleton Roundup, where they spent the day. Miller’s friend Avery is with them; they’re all staying with Shelly, Avery’s girlfriend. Miller and Carleen have been on the run for months, with Miller intent on keeping her away from Connor, her estranged father, while her mother, Lizzie, sits in jail for shooting Connor, who survived mostly unscathed. Carleen’s growing restless, wondering when she might return to school and a normal life. Before all this, Miller had been traveling across America in his motorhome, from one mass shooting to another, conning and comforting the survivors.
Shelly’s niece, Bella, did not have a donkey or a horse, but she did have a minibike, a Honda 50 — loud and stinky and fantastic. Carleen was afraid of it. Bella had her sit on it in the backyard, going nowhere, then showed her how to kickstart it, which Carleen did not like. Bella turned the bike off, and they talked for a while in the grass, then wandered into the woods behind the house.
“Those trails go for miles,” Shelly said.
Miller and Avery and Shelly and her sister Monica were drinking gin and tonics on Shelly’s back deck, except for Avery who was drinking wine. Miller felt like a fifteen-year-old kid, at a party where couples were pairing off, disappearing into back bedrooms. On the drive down from Walla Walla, Avery had called Shelly his special friend, and now it seemed as though Monica might become Miller’s special friend, Carleen in the woods with Bella wandering the trails for hours possibly — days even.
Miller hadn’t had a special friend since the Lawton massacre, over a year ago. And Monica was funny and pretty and smart, sharing a joint with him in front of Shelly’s house after the third round of drinks, asking for a tour of the motorhome.
He led her in, hoping she had a cat. All he could smell was Waffles. And there were doughnut boxes and chip bags and candy wrappers scattered all over the couch and counters.
“This is cool,” she said. “Let’s hear the stereo.”
Miller turned on some Lucinda.
“Nice,” she said. “How’s the bed?”
“Pretty good,” Miller said, and they talked about beds — futons and hideabeds, Murphy Beds and California kings, Castro Convertibles and daybeds, Monica sort of teasing with her eyes, finally saying, “We’re not going to take off our clothes or anything, so don’t worry,” and then she was kissing him and he was kissing her and there wasn’t enough air to breathe.
Kissing Monica was the best thing Miller could imagine — kissing and everything kissing might lead to. Their kisses felt like promises. No reason to stop here, Miller promised. No reason to keep all our clothes on, and Monica seemed to agree, but maybe this wasn’t quite the time. It was still light out and the kids were around somewhere. But later, yes, her kisses suggested. And if they could just get a little closer — but then Carleen screamed, “Let ’er buck!” and the minibike roared to life.
Miller and Monica jerked upright and peeked through the blinds in time to see Carleen climbing onto the bike behind Bella and wrapping her arms around her before they disappeared into the woods.
“Is it safe?” Miller said, and Monica said, “It only goes fifteen miles an hour,” and then they were kissing again, negotiating what might be possible, which seemed like a lot, everything really, hours and hours to go — it was only seven — but before the children could return, they sat up and straightened themselves out, then started kissing again, then pulled themselves apart to make themselves presentable, then started kissing again, getting a little desperate, and if they didn’t stop now — but they did stop. They were adults. There were children somewhere. They went back to Shelly’s deck and had another gin and tonic. Avery told a story about a goat his neighbor had who could open a bottle of beer with his teeth and drink it in one long pull, and Shelly told a story about her college roommate opening bottles of beer with her eye socket, Avery and Shelly holding hands, Monica and Miller looking at each other, knowing what they knew — how barriers would be falling like Berlin Walls across eastern Oregon tonight.
They made another drink.
He turned and watched Monica approach, smiling. He smiled back. Everything was about to happen.
The minibike was a vague swarm of mosquitoes buzz-whining toward them, then the girls were back, Bella killing the engine, helmets falling to the lawn, the girls scrambling toward the deck, calling, “Can we have a sleepover? Can we?”
“Of course you can,” Miller said, and Monica said, “Absolutely.”
“I want to show Bella the moho!” Carleen said.
“Sure!” Miller said.
“I’d better get dinner going,” Shelly said.
“What can I do to help,” Monica said.
“Or me,” Miller said, “to help.”
Monica smiled. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you Shelly’s house.”
She led him downstairs and they kissed some more.
“Why did we have to have all these stupid kids anyway,” Monica said, imitating George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miller said, “Beautiful, stupid, old Building and Loan,” and Monica said, “Bedford Falls — Yay!” throwing up her arms like George Bailey discovering that he really did have a wonderful life.
They needed to help upstairs. They needed to be presentable. They needed to get the children to bed as soon as possible.
They made salad while Shelly and Avery cooked salmon and eggplant on the grill. They kept brushing against each other, Monica telling Miller how she’d never been married, how she owned a distillery in Baker City. Maybe they’d try some of her whiskey later, a fantastic idea. They took the salad outside, Carleen and Bella wanting nothing to do with them. When Miller called them for dinner, they asked if they could eat in the motorhome, which was fine, and after dinner, they wondered if they could sleep in the motorhome, which was also fine. Shelly had two bedrooms in her basement, separated by a bathroom, Brady Bunch style. There would be no reason for anyone to get any sleep whatsoever tonight. But first Bella had to go home for pajamas and books and a suitcase full of Barbies with whom to populate Carleen’s Care Clinic.
While she and Monica walked to their house, Carleen called her mom.
Miller was thinking how nice it would be to have a cigarette, but he didn’t smoke anymore. Avery and Shelly were doing dishes in the kitchen. Miller wasn’t helping at all. He’d have to do something heroic tomorrow to make up for being such a bad guest. Maybe Monica would give Miller a job in her distillery, not that he had any skills. La Grande was pretty goddamn far from everything. Maybe they didn’t need to keep driving. Maybe this was where they should be. Miller walked to the motorhome to get another bottle of wine.
“They were real,” Carleen said into the phone. “You know who — the cowgirls and princesses.”
Miller sat in a wooden chair outside the motorhome.
“There’s nothing bad about it,” Carleen said. “Indian princesses, too — part of Happy Canyon. No, it is real. Miller said.”
Why couldn’t Lizzie just let her be a kid? She was so sweet and good. But Lizzie had her own problems, stuck in jail, far from her daughter.
“I love you, too,” Carleen said.
It was quiet for a minute and then Carleen asked for Noreen Cane, Miller’s mother. She’d been calling her nearly every day since they’d left Spokane.
And why not? It was probably good for both of them.
“Hi, Noreen,” she said. “It’s Carleen.”
“Yes,” she said. “I wanted to tell you about my day.”
“We went to the Roundup,” she said, “in Pendleton,” and she told Miller’s mother about the cowgirls and Indians, the queen and princesses, her new friend Bella, almost ten years old, who had a minibike called Pettin’ Patty, named after the mustangs in Little House on the Prairie. She was really funny and nice — Bella — Carleen’s new friend.
It was good she had Noreen. Maybe she’d call Dena, too, and Grace in Edison, and Cara out on the peninsula. But those were grown women. She needed kid friends.
“I love you, too,” she said.
“But you know what?” she said.
“We’re going to Happy Canyon tomorrow,” she said, “after the rodeo. It’s a Wild West pageant. I might wear a cowgirl hat. Miller said I could get one.”
He heard Monica and Bella down the road moving toward them.
“I love you, too,” Carleen said again.
Bella flew past him wearing a backpack and carrying a small, pink plastic suitcase, probably filled with Barbies.
He turned and watched Monica approach, smiling. He smiled back. Everything was about to happen. He stood to greet her. They didn’t embrace or kiss, but they wanted to. And they would soon. They went into the motorhome where the girls were furiously playing, the Barbie Care Clinic open, Barbies scattered everywhere.
Carleen’s face was flushed, her eyes shiny. “Good night, Miller,” she said. “We’re fine here now.”
“I know you are,” Miller said. “I love you.”
He’d never said that to her before.
“I love you, too,” she said.
And then Miller and Monica headed to their Brady Bunch bedrooms in Shelly’s basement, where they would stay up all night, a great end to a nearly perfect day, because even after feeling bad about school, Carleen had a new friend, and Miller had a special friend, and was feeling how good and right everything was as he and Monica walked away from the motorhome, where the girls would play all night long, none of them knowing that everything would go to hell tomorrow.