Bridge Over an Unnamed Creek
by J. Todd Gillette
The creek was not marked by a sign or named on FSA or BLM or FWP maps or topographic surveys, nor did it support trees that might have identified its approach from the road, but it filled after storms or prolonged spring rains or with a heavy snowmelt and was a deep cut that could be, at its rim, ninety feet across, so there was a bridge rather than an infinitely less costly culvert, and it was this bridge that made the creek something to take note of, that made you slow and glance one way or the other in the spring during snowmelt, and, later, after rainstorms. It, the unnamed creek, was a nest for fireweed and Russian thistle most of the year. There were red rocks and snaking white flows of calcite and newer clumps of prairie grass in the bed. On Google it was more an obscure pattern than anything else, a knotted weave of minuscule coulees tracing out of low brown hills flanking the north bank of the Yellowstone River. At the bridge it was separated by just a quarter-mile of irrigated farmland, Kurt Wanieck’s, from the river.
The bridge was new, steel and concrete, with barrow-banks of freshly graded and seeded soil, earth good for driving a steel fencepost into, and had shiny corrugated guardrails. The roadway was barely tracked and the lane striping had not yet been painted. The old bridge, also concrete, had been taken by the spring floods, after a winter that killed half the antelope herd and broke machinery and threw ranchers and farmers into tantrums, followed by snow-melt and interminable rains that took century-old elms along with cropland into the Yellowstone and left the same resolute men making cheerless jokes or wordlessly blinking at the ceiling when they could gather mornings over coffee at The Tavern in Rosebud. That was in mid-May. And it was then, the third week in May, with the creek over its banks and the roadway a flooded void in the dark, that three boys died at the old bridge.
“Ducheneaux pulled them out,” Ernie Minnich said. Ernie was a teacher at the Rosebud school and not so frequently part of the group mornings at the Tavern, but the school year was over and the school’s sewer line had back-flooded and no one was required to go in. “Backlund might have called you,” he said, eyebrows raised, to Kurt Wanieck, “only they went in on Ducheneaux’s side.”
“I was in Bozeman.”
Wanieck considered it, glancing around the room. “Hell, she could have done it. Oh, hell yes.” He paused a second longer, nodding mechanically, picturing it. “Thankfully she was in Billings.”
“Things have a way of working out,” Bill Parsons said.
“Some way. My God.”
“She still working at the clinic?”
Kurt Wanieck nodded.
It was raining outside. A car parked and its lights shone in the window. A couple hurried in. The boys were from Lame Deer and had come up, it seemed likely (little aside from their identities and the details of the accident had been made public), to cruise around the Bucking Horse Sale doings in Miles City, maybe help or cheer on friends competing in the wild horse races. They were high school kids. Kurt Wanieck, who worked for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, had been giving his standard talk on his specialty, Sage Grouse, to a graduate class at the State University—or would have been at the Rocking R killing time before going back to his room, it was Thursday night—when the boys, for reasons no one would ever know, came tearing up Cartersville Road on the opposite side of the Yellowstone and thirty miles southwest of Miles City.
“You suppose they had family around here?” Ernie Minnich asked. He always spoke in a quiet, high-pitched voice, with his eyebrows arched, as if everything not a question was subject to speculation. Except his small eyes were thick, sleepy. He was bald and had muttonchops. He had a famous affinity for his students and felt strongly about what had happened.
No one knew.
“Well,” he said, and shook his head.
In the summer Kurt Wanieck spent his weekends dozing clear the trees and rocks the flood had piled up and contouring the irrigated fields it had destroyed. He applied for disaster relief, took out an NRCS loan, ordered gated pipe. It would take three years of planting and tilling in a series of ground covers to restore the soil. He had his fencing replaced. The Project teams came with backhoes and dug out the irrigation ditches. The bridge was rebuilt. After the steel beams were laid Wanieck walked over to the opposite bank a number of times to look at the place. He paced and crouched, overshadowed by roosting machinery, and tossed stones into the marbled creek bed. One evening he noticed a violet glow back in the dried weeds. It was a spotty cache of discarded latex gloves. He raked them out, buried them deep. Then the equipment was gone and the new roadway reflected sunset and the roadsides were seeded and thatched. Everything looked purified. Passing cars didn’t slow.
In September harvest was on and many weekend mornings Wanieck found himself alone and sat at the counter in the Tavern. The early light was heavy now. This morning Ernie was in there at the table and seeing him Wanieck went back to his truck and grabbed the bag. It was a black trash bag with white corners trying to poke through. It was satisfyingly heavy. He waited for coffee. Ernie studied the bag, brows pulled high over heavy eyes.
After five or ten minutes he asked, “What you got there?”
Kurt Wanieck scratched his forehead and thought. He formed his sentences in advance, no matter how long it took, generally for purposes of comedy, and looked this way and that as if about to say something not fit to be overheard, glancing into the corner behind the table.
“Now, listen, seriously, this is not perfect,” he said to Ernie. “What the fuck, I made it out of mower blades.” He pulled the construction out and gently laid it flat on the bag so it wouldn’t scratch what was left of the table-top. “But it’s regulation, of that I can assure you. Absolutely by the book.”
Ernie stared at it a long minute. “I thought I knew you,” he said in a thin, starchy voice. He started to say more but his throat caught, and without warning his mouth twisted and he was holding his glasses and running fingers under his eyes.
“God damn it, Ernie—” Wanieck said.
The two men sat there rigidly, Minnich’s unsteady belly framed in suspenders and fists upright on the table, looking down at the painted-white triple-cross welded out of mower blades. Then the waitress was there but did not ask. They arranged themselves, ordered breakfast.
Sunday morning the air was clear and cold and the sky flat blue over the folded brown hills. It smelled later, like deer season. Wanieck laid the green fence post and post driver in the bed of his pickup and lifted the tailgate. The triple-cross was on the seat along with a pair of spanners. He drove out to the place.
He was tightening the second nut on the carriage bolts when a truck surprised him and slowed, then slid, gravel ripping, to stop half in the weeds. It was Floyd Ducheneaux’s sunbleached flatbed bale-feeder. The door screeched, then groaned. His feet were on the ground and he ducked climbing out. Ducheneaux was the biggest man Wanieck had ever known.
“What you doing?” Ducheneaux shouted. He was walking not quickly but hard this way. He tilted his head to see. Then he stopped as though he’d been hit in that face by a rock. “What the fuck is that?”
Kurt Wanieck stood to one side, thought what to say. He had been mauled by a cow not a year ago and knew this feeling.
“Oh Christ no!” Ducheneaux bawled, when he got a good look.
“Floyd,” Wanieck said, shuffling so the post separated them.
“Are you fucking serious?” he shouted. His short black hair shone as he moved from foot to foot and his scalp at the temples was gray as ash bark. His lips were drawn and his eyes slanted up. His fists were clenched.
“Floyd,” Wanieck said, “I just thought—”
“What!” It nearly doubled him.
“Listen, Floyd.” Wanieck looked up and back down the empty roadway. The hills were noncommittal, watching.
“Fuck you, I pulled them out!”
“I know. But—”
“I just thought—”
“Fuck you!” he said, and grabbed the fence post, bent over it. He pumped it, pulled it up. He shoved it into Wanieck.
“It’s all right,” Wanieck said. He hugged the post clumsily in his arms, turned away.
“It’s not all right! Fuck you, Wanieck!” Ducheneaux shouted.
Wanieck threw the thing in over the tailgate.
“Fuck you!” Ducheneaux screamed.
There were beer cans and litter, McDonalds and Taco John’s and what-not, in the yard in the days that followed. One afternoon Floyd Ducheneaux’s truck came by the house and Wanieck, from a window, saw him slow enough to toss not one but three beer cans into the yard. He lifted a middle finger for anyone watching, but looked straight ahead, drove on. It continued. Then Floyd took up target practice as never before, and weekends, in particular Sunday nights—even if Floyd’s place was half a mile east—were awful. Betsy, home for a weekend, asked what the hell. She wanted to move to Fort Collins anyway. Let him keep it up. What the hell. With late October the target practice, expensive as it must have been, tapered off. The litter didn’t.
Wanieck did not mention any of it at The Tavern, and when asked why the triple-cross was not there told Ernie Minnich he’d been asked by the county to wait.
The nights were something in November. The Milky Way arced overhead full of color, and the blackness of sky had a depth he’d never noticed, or had forgotten. It brought to mind, for whatever reason, sage grouse in deep cover. It had been a bad year. The unceasing rains had softened their eggs and decimated the hatch.
That much, at any rate, made perfect sense.
He ran into Mary Ducheneaux one afternoon at the grocery in Forsyth. Or he recognized her car, parked near it, and waited for her to come out. When she did he climbed out of his pickup and waved. She winced and smiled on recognizing him. She looked weather-beaten, tired. She had a slight limp. She wore a ball cap and the braided blonde hair looked faded.
“How are you, Kurt?”
“Not too bad.”
She stood there, plastic bags hanging from her fists, black and white purse with a moose pattern slung from her shoulder, breathing a little rapidly.
“I wanted to ask you something,” he said.
“Oh?” She looked up at him, blinking.
“I haven’t had the chance to talk to Floyd, so I’ll ask you.” He paused to frame the sentence, but found it elusive, frangible. Then, abruptly, “I wonder if you guys might need any help.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just I have the crawler and I need something to do weekends.” He laughed.
“Ah. From the flood.” She set one of the grocery bags down to flatten on the sidewalk, patted his chest. “Good. That’s good. I’ll see.”
When spring came after an easy winter the rains were rare. The plains greened for a time, but by mid-June the drought that would bring the August and September fires began in earnest. Floyd Ducheneaux accepted his neighbor’s help with the crawler. Mary called. Wanieck took it over on his flatbed. Floyd walked ahead, beyond his small house, then walked backward, not quite to his Quonset barn, and held up his hand. Wanieck stopped. Floyd stood a second regarding his neighbor. Wanieck sat in the truck’s cab. Then, like a shrug, Floyd tilted his head and ran the hand back through his hair. It had grown out to cover his ears and where he ran his hand through it stood up in black spikes. He walked up to the pickup door and rested his arm on it as Wanieck climbed out. He offered his hand. “Hey,” he said sorrowfully.
They worked together weekends, not exchanging many words. Floyd picked up rocks and logs and threw them in front of the crawler blade. He hauled brush. He gave Kurt Wanieck some elk from his freezer. Aside from the eastern Montana weather, balance was for a time restored to Cartersville Road.
“I seen a few antelope,” Floyd said, pointing north at the hills one Saturday afternoon. He handed Wanieck, seated in the crawler, his water bottle.
He squinted. “More than five, less than ten.”
“Good. That’s good news. Let me know when you see them. Like where and how many and I’ll pass it along. Birds too, like pin-tail and sage. It’s important to know.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Maybe they’ll come back fast,” Wanieck said, and took a pull from the water bottle.
“They’ll come back, anyway.”
“I’ll keep a watch,” Floyd said. He turned to look upriver, into the breeze.
J. Todd Gillette was for several years an editor for The King’s English, an online journal devoted to the literary novella. He has written two novels and is presently completing a story collection. His publication credits are several though relatively minor.