Marley Prescott’s father vanished. Then her sister left her son on Marley’s doorstep and disappeared into the night on the back of a Harley with a man Marley had never seen before.
With the child dependant on her, Marley loaded her car with supplies and headed to Sturgis, South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally where painting leathers during that one feverish week could earn her enough money to support herself and her child for months.
Rally with its undercurrent of sex and danger made Marley uneasy and restless long before she met Luke and long before she learned he shared a past with her sister and a claim to the child she loved as her own.
But when murder stuck close to home and the evidence pointed to someone close to her, Marley didn’t know who to trust.
“I don’t like it when you go, Auntie Mo,” Peter whimpered.
“You could just do the books.”
The children’s books, Marly wrote and illustrated through out the rest of the year paid their living expenses, food, clothing, and taxes on the farm. But it was Marly’s ten day stint at the Sturgis rally, air-gunning wolves, eagles, and buxom women on the back of leather vests and jackets, that paid for the medical insurance...expensive because of Petey’s frequent ear infections and her mother’s heart. It paid for medicines and even a few extras—like the second-hand car and the new tricycle that had so delighted Petey.
Petey pulled back and looked up at her from big, worried eyes. “Will my mama be there?”
Marly stilled. It had been nearly a year since Janine had flown in on the back of a Harley owned by some man Marly had never seen before, covered Peter with kisses, presented him with a second-hand teddy bear, borrowed fifty dollars from their mother’s purse, and roared away again.
“I don’t know, Petey. She might.”
“I don’t like her,” Petey whined.
Marly bit her lip; she wasn’t sure she liked her sister either, but she didn’t want Janine, should she ever choose to reappear, to know that. Marly lived in terror that some day her sister would come back and demand the boy Marly had cared for since he was a baby. “That’s all right, Peter, but never tell her that, okay?”
“An...an...I don’t like granma either!”
“Yes, you do, Peter.”
“N, I wan’ you to stay with me.” He was close to tears now. If he made a fuss, Marly knew her mother would take it out on him in dozens of mean little ways.
“Peter, you have to be brave for me. And strong.”
“I don’ wan’ to.”
“If you do, I’ll bring you a present.” Bribes, Marly thought. That couldn’t be good for him. But...she had to get him through these next ten days with as little stress as possible.
He considered, looking up at her through the beginning of tears. “What?”
“A surprise. But something really special. You just have to be real good for grandma.”
“But I don’ like grandma.”
Marly felt the beginnings of panic. She’d planned so carefully, keeping Peter up all day so she could put him to bed early, and leave when he was asleep. But now he was so tired he was irritable. Marly hated to leave him, but she had to, and he just had to cooperate. “Please Petey. It’s only ten days. We’ll mark your calendar. Ten little bears.” Marly leaned across to sketch in ten smiling bears on the calendar she’d taped by his bed. “Every morning when you wake up, you can put a mark...say a hat on one of the bears. When they’re all wearing hats...well, then I’ll be home. With your surprise.”
Petey stared at her suspiciously. “What if you run off with some bad man like my Mama did.”
Marly sighed. She knew that had come from her mother. “I’d never leave you, Peter. You’re my little boy.”
He sniffed. “Tell me about the butterfly again.”
Marly tugged the drawstring waist of his dog-printed pj’s down to reveal the odd little birthmark perched on the point of his hipbone. “You have this magic butterfly right here, and whenever you feel sad, you can just press it...” Marly punched it once with her finger and Petey giggled. “And it’ll fly with you and carry you up and away right into our great big blue sky where everything is bright and happy. And you can soar with the eagles and the hawks and even other butterflies.” She lifted him into bed and kissed his forehead. “I love you bushels and bushels, and I’d never leave you, Petey.”
Petey smiled and turned on his side. “I know,” he muttered snuggling into his pillow.
Marly waited until his eyelids slid down over the green eyes so like her sister’s, then stood, went into her own room, gathered her bags, and carried them out into the living room where her mother sat on the worn avocado-colored couch beneath the mounted deer head her father had shot with bow and arrow some twenty years ago. Marly sighed and thought how she really should try to find the money to redo this place...at least by the time Petey was in school and bringing friends home.
“Well, I’m going now, Mom.”
Her mother sniffed and muted the TV. “Do you think she’ll be there this year?”
“I don’t know. Be patient with Peter, Mom. Please.”
“You spoil him.”
“He’s...just a little boy.”
“He’s always whining.”
“No, he’s not Mom. He’s really a very sweet-natured child.”
“I guess you think it’s me, don’t you? I guess you think it’s all my fault.”
Marly blinked guiltily. “No mom, of course not.”
“Everything in this family is always my fault.”
Marly reflected uneasily that she did rather tend to feel a vast majority of this family’s problems were her mother’s fault, but she wasn’t about to say that particularly now when she needed her mother’s help with Peter. “Just do the best you can, okay, Mom? And then after...we’ll do something special...go someplace special.” Damn. Now she was bribing her mother.
Pale eyes flicked at her and then away. “You think it’s my fault he left, don’t you?”
“No!” Marly shook her head hard. “No, of course not. I certainly don’t blame you for Daddy’s leaving.”
“It was your sister. He couldn’t take her acting out and then just leaving like that. That’s what it was. It broke his heart. That’s why he left.”
Marly felt tears threatening. She wanted to throw herself into her mother’s arms and wail, “But I wasn’t acting out, Mom. And he left me too. And I miss him every day of my life.” But her mother would just sniff and push her away and say, “I do have a bad heart you know.” And besides today of all days, Marly had to keep the peace.
“I guess you’re staying with her again.”
“Places are really hard to find during the rally, Mom, and Florence rents to me really reasonably.”
“You call her Florence now?”
“Mrs. Walker, I mean.”
“Call it like it is. Your father’s whore.”
“Oh Mom. She...was his girlfriend. She loved him and misses him as much as we do.” More than you, I bet, Marly thought bitterly. Her mother’s illness had always kept her from doing anything she didn’t want to do, including inhabiting Smith Prescott’s bed, for as long as Marly could remember. Still, her mother raged continually then and now about his Sturgis girl friend.
“That’s one good thing about him running off with his young floozy, isn’t it? Old fat Florence got hers.”
“Oh mother,” Marly whispered, and then louder. “Please. Just take care of Peter.”
“Sure. You just go off and have your good time just like he did. Don’t think about me.”
“I’ll be working!” Marly said through gritted teeth. “Working hard! It won’t kill you to look after the boy for ten days!”
“You don’t know that, do you?” her mother said haughtily. “After all, I do have a bad heart, you know.” She punched up the TV sound.
“Damn,” Marly whispered to herself. “Damn.” She was trembling with anger. Don’t say anything, she told herself. That will just make it worse. Just leave. She moved to the door then hesitated and turned back. “Please Mom!” she cried over the TV. “Be good to him.”
“If your sister’s there,” her mother yelled back, “you can tell her, I haven’t got much time left and tending her bastard kid is probably going to kill me.”
“Mother!” Marly gasped.
“Ask her who the father is. Tell her we gotta have some help. Tell her, her behavior drove off your Dad. Tell her I can’t do this every year, Marlene. I’m a sick woman.”
“The doctor says if you take your medicine...”
“A lot he knows.” Her mother turned the TV sound even higher and whined to it, “I’m just not up to caring for a kid.”
“I’ve frozen meals for all ten days, Mom. The house is clean. All you have to do is...is...” her voice fell. “Be nice to him.”
Her mother stared at a beaming Pat Sajak and didn’t answer.
Marly hesitated and then went out letting the screen door slap shut behind her. Maybe next year it would be better. Wiley was trying to get her airbrushed vests and jackets into the Easy Rider catalogue. Maybe next year, she could afford childcare for Peter. She hefted her bags into the old Chevette already loaded with painted vests and jackets, her airbrush, and her paints. And maybe next year she could afford a car that wasn’t on its last legs or tires or whatever. “Just make it there and back this year, baby,” she whispered patting the rusty hood. “Please. Just this year.”
She started to get into the car, hesitated, glanced up the path that ran behind her mother’s chicken coop, and then on impulse, left the car door wide to the evening breeze and walked up that path. One hundred yards beyond the coop was the small pit, Marly’s father had dug for her vision quest. Her father’s grandmother had been Sioux, and he’d grown up with endless stories of the Sioux ways, myths and history. In turn, Smith Prescott had related them all to his younger daughter. She’d been ten when she decided she wanted, just as a Sioux child would, to have a vision quest. So her father had dug the hollow, searched out a quilt that had been his grandmother’s, and then late in the chosen day, Marly had caught him cutting tiny pieces from his arm and putting them into a hollow gourd. “What are you doing?” she remember crying out, horrified.
“This is how it’s done,” her father had replied. “It’s the duty of the parent or grandparent, Marly. It helps the visions come. They say Sitting Bull chipped a hundred pieces from his arms before he had the vision of blue-coated soldiers falling upside down from the sky. That’s how he knew his people would win at the Little Bighorn.”
But Marly had begun to cry and to protest that she didn’t want her father to cut himself. He nodded and stopped, but always after, she remembered him like that, cutting himself for her, and always after, she’d tried hard never to hurt or displease him.
Marly knelt and touched the hot dirt in the small depression, remembering how her father had wrapped her in the quilt and settled her there as night fell, and she had lain staring up at the stars and the Sioux night sun, big and round and pale. Then finally, she slept and dreamed bright vivid pictures and then herself painting those same pictures. The next morning, she told her father she would be an artist, and he smiled and capped her head with his huge, warm hand. “Then my little Wonderkid,” he grinned, “we better start saving for art school.”
He took her into town and opened a savings account in her name, and every month the two of them had put in five dollars until Marly started babysitting; then it was more.
When Smith Prescott had walked away without a word, Marly had used a little of the account to begin an art course down at the Black Hill’s College in Spearfish. But when Peter came, every cent was needed for the medical bills from Peter’s frequent ear infections and the tubes a surgeon had finally implanted to stop them.
She had felt as though the very threads of her being were entwined with those of her father and then he’d simply torn away and left her. That had been four years ago, and she’d just barely begun to heal. She stood abruptly, turned, and hurried back down the path. It was time to go, past time, and this wasn’t helping a bit.
The Chevy sputtered and jerked to a start, shied a bit on the gravel road that led out of the hills, but settled into a rattling rumble on the county road that led into Spearfish. After a time Marly relaxed and let herself enjoy the long, late sun light that hazed the distant mountains, giving them that dark look that caused the Lakota Sioux to name them Paho Sapa, Black Hills, since their language had no word for mountains.
The sky was deep blue with lofty clouds piled in the west. An eagle wheeled slowly over a stand of burr oaks. Marly felt herself soften and fill with pleasure. It was so beautiful here, so quiet. She began to fill with peace. It would be all right. It was all going to work out. She would make enough money at the rally to cover next year’s extras and Peter would manage with her mother and pretty soon he’d start school and have friends he might be able to stay with. She half-smiled and the tension in her shoulders eased until something, some uninvited feeling crept from the fringes of her mind. A feeling of unease, a feeling she hadn’t had this strong since that terrible August her sister had run off and her father had disappeared. “Took off with one of his floozie’s,” Marly’s mother claimed to this day. But...somehow...Marly couldn’t quite believe it. There had been other women; Marly knew that. But since Smith Prescott’s wife considered herself an invalid, and since Smith was still a strong, healthy male, Marly couldn’t quite bring herself to blame him. But her father would never have left her alone to deal with her mother. And he’d never have left the Meade County deputy sheriff ’s job he loved. But then he had, hadn’t he?
At Spearfish, she pulled onto interstate ninety and was immediately surrounded by Harley Davidson motorcycles, two abreast, all rolling toward Sturgis, all huge and ridden by mostly hairy men. They reminded Marly somehow of the buffalo that used to roam here.
Marly sighed. Another rally. Every August, the little town of Sturgis, South Dakota shut down its businesses, emptied its stores of dresses, shirts, hardware, and rented every inch of space to vendors from all over the world, selling leathers, T-shirts, exotic foods, rally beer, motorcycles, and every motorcycle accessory known to man. The Buffalo Chip, Hog Heaven, and other, smaller campgrounds hauled in hundreds of porta potties and booked famous rock bands. The highway patrol moved half of its staff to the West River area; hundreds of police from other towns took their vacations and drove to Sturgis to earn the big bucks the Sturgis force paid for extra Rally policing. And then the bikers arrived. For one week, the population of Sturgis went from five hundred to two hundred thousand plus.
The money, bikers spent in a state with a severely depressed economy, would keep a good number of locals going through the rest of the year—Marly included. Most of the bikers worked as doctors, lawyers, construction workers; but then there were The Hell’s Angels, The Devils’ Disciples, The Yonkers, all the outlaw gangs. Not just everyone could afford the gleaming $25,000 Harleys and all the painted leathers and chrome attachments. It was a pricy hobby...or occupation. Marly hit her right turn button and took the Sturgis exit behind a biker with a buxom blond in string bikini clinging to his leather back. His babe was going to have one miserable sunburn tomorrow.
Marly turned into Florence Walker’s driveway, pulled out a shopping cart and loaded it with leathers, paint, and airbrush. Florence came out and stood on the front porch. “Room’s all ready, Marly.”
Marly smiled and nodded.
“You hear from your father?”
“No.” Marly murmured. Growing up, She’d heard the whispers. Florence had been Smith Prescott’s lover for as long as Marly could remember; she knew her father would have left her mother for Florence if it hadn’t been for his daughters. This part of South Dakota was traditional; men stayed with their families...and besides, their dad had loved them. And Florence. And had gone off with someone else?
Florence came down the three steps from the porch to whisper to Marly. “They rented their back yard for three hundred dollars.” She pointed with her chin to her neighbor’s back yard where three tents were already in place. “Kin you believe that? Three hundred dollars! Jus fer a scrap a grass ta stick a flap a canvas. They rented the drive fer another two...n’ the poor suckers gotta go in and use the town porta potties. They’re not even lettin’ ‘em use their john.”
“Florence, the two hundred, I pay you, really isn’t enough. I mean for the driveway and the room...”
“No, now baby. I’m not about to rent to those bikers. Who knows what they might do.”
Florence represented that part of the locals who locked themselves in their houses for the rally duration; another part, set up stands, rented rooms and yards, and came away with a tidy little nest egg.
“You want a glass a sweet tea?” Florence asked wistfully.
“No, I’m going to get this down to Wiley’s before it gets too late.”
“Oh honey, you shouldn’t be out alone.”
Marly smiled. “I’ll be okay, Florence.” She didn’t point out that even though the rally didn’t officially begin until tomorrow, the streets and sidewalks were packed with bikers and tourists and locals. Every year Florence made Marly watch a video of an old fifties movie, The Wild Bunch, in which a motorcycle gang takes over a town and menaces it’s pretty young women. Marly understood that for Florence every Rally was just one gigantic Wild Bunch, and, so for a long ten days, she worried constantly about Smith Prescott’s daughter.
* * * *
Marly walked down
No. It was...something else. It was such a very different world. The town had been overwhelmed by the 50th anniversary rally back in 1990. The great hordes of people who descended on the small, quiet town had left behind hills of garbage and other unpleasant messes. Public nudity and similar displays of questionable taste had had the town up in arms. A community standards letter had been mailed to all vendors, property owners, and the local newspaper. A community standards committee had been appointed as well as a rally committee that had created newer, stronger rules. Taxes and levies were set on vendors so the town would benefit. And now a peace of sorts existed between the two sides. But the flash, the glitter, and yes, the violence, was still part of the rally...and all of it was underscored by a restless, sensual, sexual energy.
The motorcycle babes wore string bikinis or fringed leather halters or tight t-shirts that they flipped up at the drop of a lug wrench revealing full, white breasts. And the street booths were full of t-shirts and bike stickers with biker messages and biker humor. Messages that seemed to speak of some hidden war between the sexes: “Women: you can’t live with them, can’t shoot them.” “I’m not a bitch. I’m the bitch.” “Never trust anything that bleeds three to five days a month and doesn’t die.” “Get on, hold on, shut up.” “BLOW ME!” “It isn’t how deep you fish, but how you wiggle your worm.” It seemed to Marly that perhaps sexuality was something angry and hard. But then too were the messages of their life philosophy. “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.” “If you have to ask...you wouldn’t understand.” “If you get the urge, do it in Sturg.” “If you can’t rock and roll, don’t fuckin’ come.” “Born to ride.” “Crashing sucks.” “It’s a sick world, n’ I’m a happy guy.”
It all made Marly uneasy, even frightened, but more too. She felt something lacking in herself...the ability to give up control, to take the chance of crashing. If it was a sick world...well, then she was not a happy girl. And part of her wanted to be...happy? Free? Something.
She felt a bit like her mother’s hens in the spring when they grew broody and the blood pooled in the skin of their chests, and they turned endlessly in the new grass and weeds until finally they created a nest and settled to lay and hatch a new family. Yes. That was it. Increasingly, the rally made Marly feel broody, and that was what was frightening. She wasn’t about to climb on the back of some sleek, leather-covered biker’s hog and head off into the sunset leaving her devastated family behind as Janine, her sister, had done. Yes, damn it, just as Janine had done...and...worse...her father.
But if Marly left, there would be no one left to pick up the pieces and no one to care for Petey. And he didn’t deserve that. She would never do that to him. Still she wanted…something…more. Something she knew was out there…beckoning…or…perhaps threatening.
Marly found herself remembering the woman who’d been strangled and dumped out on the county road, after the rally when Janine had disappeared. A woman who looked so much like Janine that the sheriff ’s substation in Deadwood had called the number on the posters Marly and her father had stapled on poles all over Meade County. Marly had been seventeen when the call came in, but her father had looked so white and sick, she’d insisted on going with him and on driving.
“Deputy Prescott,” A respectful, young officer murmured, looking honestly sad. “I hope it’s not your daughter.”
Her father just nodded, unable, Marly suspected, to speak. The officer led them back to the body. Marly heard her father gasp as the young man reached to pull back the sheet; quickly she put an arm around his waist.
And then it wasn’t Janine. Just someone who looked very like her.
But her father stood for the longest time, staring down at the pale, heart-shaped face, the tangled red hair.
“It’s not her, Daddy.” Marly whispered.
“Sure does look like her.”
Smith Prescott’s eyes moved from the face of the stranger back to his youngest daughter’s. His eyes were odd, troubled. “Some big coincidence.”
“Yes, it is, Daddy.”
“Odd,” he muttered, turning abruptly and striding away so fast Marly had to run to catch up.
“What’s the matter?” She gasped catching at his arm.
He hesitated and then smiled down. “Nothing, baby. Nothing. Don’t worry that pretty head.” And then within the week he was gone. Just disappeared.
“Run off with his floozy,” Marly’s mother said over and over. But Florence was still there in Sturgis.
He’d been so pale and gasping for breath as they’d sped toward Deadwood. He could have had a heart attack somewhere isolated and just never been found. But then Chris Stokes, his fellow deputy, partner and friend, pointed out that his car was parked at the McDonald’s in Spearfish. “You think he had a heart attack and then walked off so far we couldn’t find him? Doesn’t work that way, Mar.”
“Well then, maybe foul play,” Marly ventured.
And Chris started laughing. “You’ve been reading too many detective stories, honey. This is South Dakota, you know.” And later, he’d brought word that one of the deputies had seen Smith Prescott with a young thing over in Pierre. Later word came that someone else saw him in Wall. So then he’d just walked away? And never once so much as tried to contact his family...contact her? It was a sick world, and Marly was not a happy girl.
She tightened her grip on the cart handle, and moved faster through the crowd. Most just stood staring out into Main Street where the huge Harleys, many painted or chrome decorated, roared up and down Main Street which hadn’t yet been officially closed to car traffic, though it might as well have been. One biker rode with a blow up doll tied behind his seat; another sported a cage with a real, live hamster, but most carried scantily dressed “biker babes.”
Marly’s eyes drifted forward and caught on a pair of steel grey eyes that fixed on hers. The owner’s monster Harley was parked in the line that fenced the side walk. The owner sat one foot on the black gas tank, an arm draped over the propped knee. He wore not the usual bikers’ cap or bandanna but a leather hat that was half-biker, half-cowboy. Marly’s steps faltered, then stopped. For an instant, their eyes locked; Marly swallowed. He really was rather magnificent; wide shoulders and narrow hips all encased in glove-soft, black leather that bikers wore for protection should their skoots skid out. His face looked...grim, she thought. Something about the distance in his eyes or the set of his jaw...perhaps fierce was more accurate. Then with his eyes still holding hers, his finely chiseled lips curved into a mocking half-smile that made him look...dangerous.
Marly found herself shifting in a small half-circle. Just like a broody hen, she thought with disgust and jerked her eyes away right onto a scantily clad young woman perched up on a counter, selling T-shirts emblazoned with, “There’s nothing like an eight hundred pound vibrator,” beneath a picture of a huge Harley. Marly’s face burned and her eyes shot back to the man in black. He was grinning now and looked a little less like some hero from a spaghetti western, but Marly wasn’t fooled. This was just the sort of man Janine would have leapt on behind, her hands running up and down that leather-gloved body as they rode off into the sunset leaving everyone else to clean up her messes.
Well, Marly was not her sister. No way was she going to tie up with some biker who’d leave her alone in the ashes of a ruined life, no matter how pretty his eyes or how his hair curled on the collar of his jacket. In fact, he needed a haircut. She walked faster, jerking the shopping cart behind and knocking into even more pedestrians in her flight as she fought an urge to look back...just once. “I’m not my sister,” she muttered into the motorcycle roar. “I am not my sister.” She hesitated, then added, “Or my father.”
Main Street, narrowing her eyes against the glare of late sun flashing from the chrome of several thousand motorcycles. Revving motors thundered about her. Gas and oil fumes filled the air. The crowds on the sidewalk were so dense, she could hardly push through. Marly had to admit that she, like the town, was ambivalent about the rally. When it started, she always grew uneasy and often ended the ten days with shaking hands and fierce headaches. Never had there been a rally where at least one person hadn’t died. But Marly didn’t feel physically threatened.
“I know, baby,” Marly whispered, gathering the four year old onto her lap and laying her cheek on his silky head, breathing deeply of the scent of child and baby shampoo. “I don’t like it either, Petey, but I have to make money...you know...so we can eat...and maybe have a new toy.”