The Mine Shaft was a real drinking man’s tavern. Barkeep Shorty Miller would set a beer and shot of whiskey in front of you before your butt hit the bar stool unless you were quick enough to tell him to hold the hard stuff. Even then, you still might get it – just consider it an hors d’oeuvre.
Barely inside the Deadwood city limits, it was the only bar in town without slot machines, blackjack tables and buxom waitresses in stiletto heels. What you would find instead were grimy miners, sweaty loggers, tattooed bikers, ex-felons and lots of trouble.
It’s where high school chemistry teacher Reuben Rose went to unwind after school. It was about thirty minutes from his home, his school and the nosey parents of his pesky students. It was his Friday night reprieve.
Shorty ran the Mine Shaft for at least the two decades Reuben had been coming there. Not too interested in history and usually lost in his own thoughts, Reuben never inquired as to the bar or Shorty’s past. Shorty set the whiskey and beer on the bar in front of the third barstool from the end where Reuben always sat except for those rare occasions when he was expecting company. Tonight he was.
“Gonna take the table in the back,” an unusually grumpy Reuben said, hoisting a drink in each hand and continuing on.
“Company tonight?” Shorty asked, raising a furry white eyebrow.
“Anybody I know?”
Reuben found the desired table in the darkest corner lit only by the television mounted near the ceiling. He sat down, placed his drinks on a pair of napkins and set a napkin in front of each of the other three chairs around the square table. Head down, Reuben studied the beer bottle as if it were the first one he’d ever seen. Taking a sip, he began to peel the label from the upper left corner and folded it over a half inch. He took another healthy sip, peeled back another corner.
Shorty, just a foot taller than the bar in front of him, watched the familiar but odd routine for a while. When he saw the label torn completely off, folded neatly in a square and placed atop the beer, Shorty brought another bottle and removed the empty – Reuben put the “D” in OCD.
Two corners into his second beer, Reuben looked up when the chair across from him was pulled out. “Sir Reuben!” the chair-puller Larry said, offering his hand.
“Stranger,” Reuben dead-panned, shaking it.
“Not as strange as some,” Larry grinned.
Larry’s given name was Laurence Olivier – no relation to the Sir, just the son of two hippies who thought it sounded cool. In fact, he’d given up years ago trying to convince less sophisticated South Dakotans of the correct pronunciation and mostly now answered to the pronunciation of the common spelling of Larry Oliver. At least his driver’s license was spelled correctly, as he’d convinced the old lady at the driver’s license office of his wished-for heritage. In other words, he lied, a skill at which he was quite adept.
Though sharing similar professions (Larry a high school English teacher) and both living near the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota (Larry south in Hot Springs, and Reuben northeast in Belle Fourche), they hadn’t seen each other in three years. Chalk it up to different social circles. Larry preferred the hoity-toities of high society and even occasionally wrote and directed productions at the Black Hills Playhouse. Reuben didn’t have much of a social circle, an affliction seemingly shared with most other geniuses. Reuben was sitting in his social circle – more of a dot – sharing the bar with other loners who, although friendly, accepted each other’s oddities as none of their damn business.
“I see you received the call too,” Larry said, a bit perplexed.
“Right behind you!” Buster Odney boomed, causing Larry to jump and hit his skinny knee against the table.
“Jeez, you freak!” Larry said, spinning around and receiving a bear hug from the former offensive lineman for the Chamberlain Cubs.
Shorty Miller sidestepped around them and placed two beers and two shots on the table.
“I’d prefer a zinfandel,” Larry sniffed, rubbing his knee.
“I’d prefer a blow job,” Shorty retorted.
“But whiskey will do,” Larry conceded, a shade of burgundy coloring his cheeks.
Buster wiggled into a seat and downed his shot quicker than most people blink. “So we all answered the call of the wild I see,” he said.
“Is she here?” Larry asked, squinting through round wire-rimmed glasses.
“She is dead,” Reuben said.
“Sure sounded like her on the phone,” Buster said.
“Was her daughter,” Reuben said.
“Didn’t know she had one,” Buster said, perplexed.
“How would she know about us?” Larry, always the questioner, asked.
“Mothers and daughters have been known to share secrets,” Reuben said.
Larry and Buster nodded in agreement – a relative rarity. The motley trio had, in fact, very little in common but a shared alma mater – South Dakota State University. Reuben, Class of 1971, was the elder statesman. Larry the drama king was a child of the ‘80s, having received his diploma in 1981; and Buster was the baby of the triplets, still proudly sporting his 1986 class ring. Thus their ages penciled out to 55, 45 and 42, respectively.
All three owed their graduations to one mean little old lady named Alma Sorenson, the Dean of Students during their tenure. The three also credited, or blamed, her for something else – their summers of crime. For although she believed in redemption of the college student soul, Dean Alma also believed in blackmail.
REUBEN ROSE went to SDSU to be a chemical engineer. He envisioned a career in killing things, concocting herbicides, pesticides, rodenticides, pharmaceuticals to kill diseases, or, in his wildest dreams, top-secret military potions to poison Commies. His hero was Louis Fieser, the Harvard chemist credited with developing napalm. But it was Reuben’s extracurricular mixology that unraveled his career track, as he excelled mostly in mixing rum and Cokes, vodka and orange juice, Long Island Iced Teas, and Flaming Blue Jesus.
Reuben was legendary in the fraternity for mixing, sharing and partaking. He excelled at what he did. Unfortunately, bartending was not yet a major at SDSU and the career earnings potential is never good when one must rely on a tip jar.
As the most certain cure for the common hangover is to simply stay drunk, it was by no small miracle that Reuben was still a student in good standing in the first semester of his junior year. But with 200- and 300-level classes weighing heavy on his alcohol-adled mind, Reuben began to do whatever necessary to maintain a C average, an unusual predicament for the former “A” student. That often meant awkwardly peering over a fellow student’s shoulder during exams, or if that not possible, cribbing on little pieces of paper tucked under his thigh. At this he proved most incompetent and was caught.
That’s when he first met Dean Alma. A small, unassuming woman with a purplish tint to gray hair piled in a bun, it was her eyes that made troubled college students wiggle in their seats like worms on a hook, even if they were geniuses. The eyes were small and deep set and sparkling blue, but not sexy blue. They were eerily blue. Poison Drano blue.
Sitting before her, Reuben was sweating like an FFA kid at his first county fair in a hot metal barn in August, showing a
calf who just came down with a bad case of scours.
“Cheating is not tolerated at
she said in a deeper voice than he expected. “From an upperclassman
nonetheless! It is grounds for expulsion.” South Dakota
Reuben gulped, his Adam’s apple stuck up by his chin unable to descend. He thought he was going to choke on it.
“It seems that isn’t all,” she continued.
“Oh, God,” he thought to himself. “What now?”
“I’ve been doing some checking on you. You’re not just a cheater. You’re a drunk too. With one sweep of this pen, I can send you back to Pukwana, uneducated, unwanted and disgraced.”
She waved a felt-tip marker perilously close to a paper in front of her.
“Is that what you want? Is that who you are?”
“Umm, no mam,” he managed to gurgle.
“Then tell me what you want, tell me who you are.”
“Umm, I’m a good person. I’m smart. I made a mistake. I promise to never do it again.”
“But smart people, good people, can’t be drunk all the time.”
“I’ll quit drinking. I want to graduate.”
“I don’t see how you can complete your engineering requirements with this cloud over your head, with an F in your discipline.”
“I can do something else.”
“Do you like kids?” she asked, catching him off guard.
“I guess so.”
“The state needs teachers. Specialized teachers. You could teach chemistry.”
It didn’t sound like a question. He answered: “Uh huh.”
“I will talk to your advisor and move you into a teaching track. You will shape up. You will graduate. You will make your family proud.”
“Okay,” Reuben said.
“You may go.”
He stood up to leave, but before he reached the door, Dean Alma added: “Reuben.”
“Yes.” He turned to face her.
“I will keep your disciplinary file here. Nobody will ever see it.”
“You owe me one.”
LAURENCE OLIVIER (aka Larry) entered SDSU with many of the same attributes of famous
Hollywood actors twice his age. He was smug, arrogant,
condescending, pretentious and quite the lady’s man. Unfortunately, he also possessed
the acting skills of elementary students half his age.
But Larry was never one to let reality get in the way of his vision of the way things ought to be. So in his sophomore year, when he was chosen as the understudy to Billy Broadheimer’s Romeo in the spring performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” Larry did what any delusional sociopath would do. He slipped into Billy’s dorm room at two in the morning, channeled Jack Nicklaus and whacked the sleeping Romeo across the shins with a three wood.
Unfortunately for Larry, he never could hit a three wood well and, fortunately for Billy, a ranch kid from
, he slept with his cowboy boots on and
nary a welt was raised. But it did wake him. As Billy chased the stocking-cap
clad Larry down the hallway, Larry dropped the golf club, which was, again
unfortunately, monogrammed on the shaft with the initials L.L.O. Belvidere, S.D.
So although the cowboy actor didn’t catch the thuggish thespian, Dean Alma did and summoned him for a caustic casting call in her office the following morning.
“Mr. Olivier,” she began with Larry sitting ram-rod straight in the chair before her desk. “Do you know what society does to perpetrators of assault and battery?”
“It incarcerates them, mam.”
“Is there any reason why that shouldn’t happen to you?”
“I hope they would consider that it was my first offense and factor in that it was a crime of passion of which I would never repeat.”
“Passion can be a virtue or it can be a vice,” she said. “Uncontrollable violent passion is certainly a vice. How could they be sure?”
“Only by my word,” Larry explained.
Dean Alma harrumphed. “Well, fortunately for you there is another option. Billy has agreed not to press charges on the conditions that you keep that word and also are removed from the drama program – permanently.”
Larry blanched at the thought and even his best acting could not hide the natural reflex of blood draining from his face.
“Are there any other options?” Larry asked.
“Just the two,” she said.
Larry felt a temporary reprieve, like the electricity had gone off just before the warden flipped the switch. The feeling lasted three seconds, as she continued.
“One, Billy presses charges, you are expelled from school and your record follows you for the rest of your life, rendering you unable to even enter a vo-tech school to learn how to repair refrigerators. Two, you apologize, become perhaps an English major instead and hope that somewhere down the line some high school has a desperate need for an English teacher who directs their senior class play. That’s as close to the acting profession as you will ever get.”
So with that distant light flickering at the end of his career tunnel, Larry relented.
“Thank you, mam,” he whispered as he exited the office.
“And Larry,” Dean Alma added as he looked over his shoulder.
“You owe me one.”
YOU HAVE TO GO a long way back to ever find a time when Buster Odney was actually a little boy, but ever since he was a young boy Buster wanted to be a game warden. The idea of wearing a shiny badge, carrying a gun and being outdoors appealed to him. Plus, he really liked the pick-up trucks they drove.
Buster took that dream to SDSU courtesy of a full ride football scholarship, where he used his 6-3 240-pound frame to clear paths for running backs to run through. As a gregarious and likable human snowplow he made an immediate impact on the team and made a herd of friends in the process. Buster and those friends had loads of fun on and off the field – a little too much in fact.
It was tradition at SDSU that whenever the Jackrabbits played an in-state rival, the opposing teams found it humorous to toss dead rabbits onto the field or basketball court. The aspiring game warden within Buster failed to see the humor.
So it was one Friday night in the winter of his sophomore year that Buster and some of his well-muscled and well-pickled football teammates thought they would show some support for their school’s basketball team as it prepared to take on their arch-rival
in a Saturday night showdown. After polishing off a keg of Milwaukee’s finest
swill they grabbed a spotlight and their rifles and headed for the plains and
gulleys outside of town near Volga in pursuit of the wiley coyote – to turn the
tables on their Jackrabbit-tossing foes. It’s not something Buster would have
condoned in a sober state of mind, but thus the term “stupid drunks.” University
of South Dakota Coyotes
They piled out of Buster’s pickup near a farmer’s pasture and crept along a river bed, following the sound of yipping ‘yotes and quietly mooing cattle. When the spotlight finally hit a pair of shiny eyes among some weeds atop the river bank, rifle shots rang out like Chinese New Year.
A loud yelp and two thuds sent the boys hootin’ and hollerin’ toward the ridge they were aiming. As the spotlight settled on a coyote carcass a spontaneous cheer of “Screw the U, Screw the U” erupted and Buster held the trophy up by a hind leg. But as the spotlight scanned the area a bit more, the “Screw the U” chant morphed into “Oh shit”s when two dead Holstien cows lit up the night with their black and white hides reflecting like ghosts about ten yards behind.
It’s not even relevant to the story whether or not the linemen successfully sneaked the coyote carcass into the basketball game the next night, nor if that coyote was tossed onto the half court line just as the referee tossed the ball up for the tip-off, nor even if the crowd cheered wildly and the Jackrabbits when on to a 102-70 rout of USD. What IS relevant is that somebody broke that Friday night vow of secrecy and eventually proudly blabbed to a girlfriend who blabbed to a girlfriend who blabbed to a resident assistant of the dorm who blabbed it to Dean Alma.
So it was a short four days later when Buster found himself seated before her mahogany desk, Dean Alma glaring at him with those abominable eyes.
“Mr. Odney, are you familiar with the stereotype of the dumb jock?”
“Uh, huh,” he nodded.
“Well you are not helping matters any. Perfectly bright, academically elite football players across this nation still suffer the indignities of that stereotype thanks to idiots like you.”
“That’s all my fault?”
“Today it is.”
“You should be. Can you even speak a three-syllable word?” she asked.
Buster’s arm pit stains nearly doubled. He wiped his brow and thought. A partial smile came to his face and he mumbled: “Son-of-a-bitch?”
“I don’t ever want to hear another swear word come out of your mouth! Ever! Not in my presence. Not in the presence of a woman!”
“Sorry,” he sheepishly muttered, amazed that his body could produce so much sweat without a blocking sled in front of him.
She continued standing, ranting and pointing. “I understand you want to be in law enforcement or wildlife management or something that is obviously way to advanced for a simpleton like you.”
“Um, well, yes, mam.”
“I’ll let you stay in this school under one condition.”
“Do you want to hear the condition?”
“You will become a teacher.”
“A teacher?” Buster wrinkled his nose.
“Yes. A high school ag instructor. Maybe even coach some football. And you will teach every boy who comes through your program at least one thing.”
“To never swear in front of a woman!” she screamed.
“Now get out!”
“Okay,” Buster said, raising his drenched body out of the chair and walking to the door.
He turned around. “Yes?”
“One other thing.”
“What?” he sighed.
“You owe me one.”