THE MOUND BUILDERS
By
Eve Fisher


South Dakota is divided by the Missouri River into two worlds. West is the true high plains, where bleached green waves of wild grass ripple for miles until they break on the sandy cliffs of the Badlands. East River has little echoes of the west, like the Vermillion Hills, but most of it is farmland, with endless fields of corn and wheat and soybeans that make it look tame. Then winter comes and you realize how badly you’ve been fooled.
Our farm lay East River, and stretched along the Vermillion Hills. The corn ran right up to the grassland, and in between the two, almost like a boundary marker near the house, was a cairn of stones. It wasn’t very far from the house, and it wasn’t very big, unless you were me at eleven, when I decided to take it down and see what was under it. I’d read a book about the Mound Builders and, ignoring the complete lack of resemblance to any of the illustrations, decided the rock pile was their handiwork. Mom said the rocks had been there ever since she could remember, and that was close enough to the pioneers for me. The way I figured it there had to be at least some gold buried under there, if not a body or two.
I shared my idea with my little brother. At eight years old, Pete was small but willing, and we sweated away trying to shift what appeared to be tons of rock. We’d moved a lot of it, too, or at least some of the top layer, when our sister came out to bug us for a while. Sarah was 16 and had little time for our ideas, no matter how brilliant, so she just took one look and said we’d better shift it all back the way it was or she’d tell Mom. That was a fate worse than death, so I started bargaining with her.
“Tell you what, Sarah,” I said, “we’ll split anything we find with you, fifty-fifty. What do you say?”
“I say you’ll find a lot of dirt. Get it back or I’ll tell Mom.”
“Snitch! Snitch! Tattle-tale snitch!” Pete started singing, dancing back and forth on the rock pile. “Sarah’s nothing but a tattle-tale snitch!”
Sarah grabbed for him, but Pete ducked away, crowing like Peter Pan. I got out of the way. Sarah had a hand like iron and didn’t hesitate to use it. So I stood and watched from a safe distance while Sarah and Pete chased around the rock pile, just like a cartoon, until Pete tried to clamber over the top, slipped, lost his balance, and thumped his way down to the ground.
Sarah and I both stood there, waiting for him to get up, but he didn’t. Sarah looked scared, but suspicious. I figured he was faking it, too, but then he let out a groan (he later denied this) and lifted himself up.
“You okay?” I asked.
He was dirty and pale, his shirt and his jeans were torn, and his arm and his leg were both scraped up pretty bad. “Course I’m okay,” he said.
“Well, get up then,” I said. “We got work to do.”
Pete got up and started tugging at something.
“You two’d better start getting those rocks put back where they belong,” Sarah started up again.
“Oh, come off it, Sarah,” I said. “He’s going to be in enough trouble when Mom sees him.”
“Yeah, well, you’re the one who’s gonna get the whipping, Tom.”
“Me? What for?”
“For letting him get so bunged up, what else?”
“It’s not my fault he slipped on those rocks!” I was stung by the whole injustice of it, especially since I could see that Mom probably would blame me. Then I saw my way out. “You’re the one who chased him till he fell!”
“Prove it,” Sarah said, betraying me without a moment’s hesitation.
I was about to make sure she slipped and fell on some rocks –- might as well be shot for a sheep as a lamb –- when Pete yelled out, “Hey! Look here!”
I looked. He was holding up a purse. “Who cares?”
“Might be something in it,” Pete said. He sat down and opened it.
“You shouldn’t open it,” Sarah said. “It’s not yours.”
“I know that,” Pete said. “But if I don’t open it, how will I know who to give it back to?”
“Whose is it?” Sarah asked.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
What was in it was a comb, a set of keys, a dirty handkerchief, a small empty bottle of peppermint schnapps, a pack of Marlboros with two cigarettes left, some matches, a lot of lint and a wallet. In the wallet was five dollars and thirty-nine cents and a driver’s license made out to Gwen Davison.
The Davisons had the farm on the east side of us, though they just lived in the house and rented out the land. Farming, my mother once said tartly, would interfere with their drinking. A month ago or so, the two of them had followed up an evening of their favorite pastime with their second favorite pastime, fighting. They had a huge fight that started at the Norseman’s Bar with broken glasses and a lot of shouting and then went on to their place, and ended up with all the Davison kids fleeing for safety over at the Nelson place. Now there was nothing unusual in any of this, not even the fact that the next day Mrs. Davison - Gwen - packed up and left. Went off, Mr. Davison growled all over town, leaving him stuck with the brats. Nobody’d heard from her since.
Sarah and I looked at each other, then at Pete, who was still scrabbling away at the rocks, and - I don’t know who said it first or if we said it together – told Pete to leave the rocks alone.
“Why?” he asked, the little pest.
“Because,” I said. “We gotta decide what to do.” I turned to Sarah. “Cops or Mom?”
“The cops’d just laugh at us,” she said. “They might even think we stole it. And what if they told Mr. Davison?” We both shuddered, just thinking about it.
We ran back to the house, where Uncle Warren told us that Mom wasn’t home. That was obvious, because there he was, leaning against the kitchen counter and drinking a pop with his work boots still on. He’d catch it when she got back, tracking up her clean floor like that, but that was his problem.
Uncle Warren was Mom’s brother. He moved in with us when Dad got killed in a combining accident, back when I was five. I’d heard some adults say Uncle Warren was lucky to have a sister with a farm, because otherwise he’d never amount to much. I’d also heard them say that he drank too much, and chased women. All I knew was that next to Mom, Uncle Warren was the most trustworthy adult I knew. In some ways he was even better than Mom, because he understood how you couldn’t always be clean and neat and well-behaved, and he was willing to cover for you when you might get in trouble for some silly rule that you couldn’t even remember. And he was always interested in my ideas. For example, when I’d told him my idea about the rock pile, he’d said it sounded like a harmless way of keeping me out from under his feet.
Of course it didn’t seem so harmless now, showing him the purse and telling him - with a lot of stupid interruptions from Sarah who kept trying to shut me up for some reason - about the wallet and the money and the driver’s license. He looked it over carefully and shook his head.
“You know, Tom, my strong advice would be to put that back where it came from.”
Well, Pete and I both burst out at that. “What are you talking about?” “It’s buried treasure!” “We can’t just put it back!” “We’ve got to do something!”
He shrugged. “Okay. What do you want to do?” he asked.
“Take it to the police?” Sarah asked, her jaw jutted out, like she was challenging him.
“Maybe,” Uncle Warren said. “I’d have to think on it.”
“Well, how about if we, if you’d come help us search around a little?” I asked.
“You mean dig out the rocks some more? I wouldn’t, but it’s your funeral.”
I didn’t like that word much because it reminded me of Mr. Davison, but Pete whooped, “Let’s go!”
“Go where?” Sarah asked scornfully.
“Back to the rock pile,” Pete said. “Tom said there might be a body under there.”
Sarah turned white, and Uncle Warren stiffened. “You know,” he said seriously, “Sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.”
“But we’ve got to do something,” Sarah said.
“Yeah!” Pete cried out.
“But not right now,” Uncle Warren urged. “Your Mom’s gonna be back in about half an hour and start fixing dinner, and I think you’d better think about getting yourselves cleaned up.” We just stared at him. Uncle Warren had never cared before whether we’d rolled in mud. He sighed. “How upset do you want your Mom to be?”
We all exchanged glances. “Not very,” I said.
“Well, then, you’d better do something about Pete, because if your Mom sees him the way he is, she’ll hit the roof and then it won’t matter what you’ve got to say.”
Well, he had a point. Even Sarah saw that. We got Pete upstairs and in the shower and when he came out Sarah slapped iodine on him till he was squealing worse than a sow. But by dinner time he looked all right. We also managed to impress on him the importance of keeping his mouth shut about the wallet, and he did. Every time he was ready to burst out - and we could tell, because he’d turn bright red - he shoveled more food into his mouth. He ate like a horse anyway, so Mom didn’t think anything about it.
After dinner Sarah and I did the dishes and Pete took out the garbage while Mom and Uncle Warren watched TV.
“You think Uncle Warren will tell Mom?” I whispered to Sarah.
“He’d better,” she said grimly.
“Well, I’m going back out tomorrow and look some more.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am!”
“Well, you’re not going alone.”
“All right. You can come, too. But if we find anything…”
“Find what?” Sarah hissed.
“You know what,” I hissed back.
“Well, what?”
“You know what. Just don’t start crying or fainting or some dumb girl thing on me.”
“Hah. You’re the one who nearly fainted when you had to have stitches last year.”
“I did not!”
“Did too!”
Things escalated until Mom yelled at us to shut up, and then we kept squabbling in whispers, so it was a while before we finished the dishes. Sarah went up to her bedroom, while I went out to the living room. Mom and Pete were watching an old Western.
“Uncle Warren around?” I asked after a while.
“He went into town,” Mom said shortly. Uncle Warren went into town a lot, and she didn’t approve. I didn’t see why. He always seemed to have a good time. That night, though, I agreed with her, because what if he ran into Mr. Davison? I tried to stay up long enough to talk to him when he got back, but Mom made me go to bed, and I guess all my hard work shifting stones caught up with me, because I rolled over once and it was morning.
Mom was not in a good mood at breakfast. Her mouth was snapped shut tight as a turtle’s, and she was slapping the plates down on the table like they were made of rubber. I sat down across from Pete and we both nodded. As usual, Sarah was the one who had to open her big mouth.
“Where’s Uncle Warren?” she asked.
“He’s not here.”
Anyone else would have known at that point to keep their traps shut, but not Sarah. “Well, where is he?”
“Young lady, I do not have time to answer your stupid questions. I have had to do chores and feed livestock and wash up and now get breakfast and I strongly suggest that you hurry up and eat because there are a lot of other things that need to be done around this place this morning. This is a farm, not a resort, and you need to…” and on and on and on.
Meanwhile, the three of us stared at each other with dismay. If Mom had had to do the chores, that meant that Uncle Warren hadn’t come home last night, and while usually that meant that when he did come home he would be tired and happy, this time it might mean he was dead.
It took forever to get all the chores done that morning, and I swear that after a while Mom was making them up. It wasn’t until way after lunch that we got a break, and by then we were all so tired that Pete just laid down on the living room floor and took a nap. Sarah and I went outside. There was still no sign of Uncle Warren, and I kept looking nervously around, in case Mr. Davison had found out everything and was on his way to kill us, too.
“We’ve got to tell Mom,” Sarah said.
“What are we going to tell her? That we found Mrs. Davison’s purse in the rock pile? She’ll never believe it. We don’t even have the purse. Uncle Warren kept it.”
Sarah shook her head. “We should have gone straight to Mom,” she said. “I kept trying to shut you up yesterday when you were telling him everything, but you don’t know anything and you never listen.”
“What don’t I know?”
“That Uncle Warren used to date Mrs. Davison, back when she was still Gwen Burns.”
“Where’d you hear that?” I asked, disbelieving.
“Aunt Paula and Mom were talking one day.”
Well, that made me think. Aunt Paula had married Frank Olson, our Dad’s brother. She was sister to Mrs. Stark, the crazy woman who lived as a hermit in the middle of town. Aunt Paula was crazy, too, in my book. She was always trying to get us to behave like ladies and gentlemen, and it was awful. I’d never have believed she knew anything about anyone’s love life, but then I didn’t know much about adult behavior. What I did know was that Aunt Paula would sooner be seen drunk in public than lie, so it must be the truth, though I couldn’t see how it mattered.
“So what?” I asked.
“Don’t you see? Uncle Warren must have been in love with Gwen Burns, and it broke his heart when she married Mr. Davison. That’s why he’s never married or anything like that. She was his one true love. And the way Mr. Davison treated her and the kids, Uncle Warren must have hated him. So when you showed him that purse, that proved to him that instead of running off, Mr. Davison killed her, so he went out to avenge her.”
I’d never heard such a bunch of nonsense in my life. “You’re nuts,” I said. “Uncle Warren’s not -”
I shut up in mid-sentence because right then the sheriff drove up.
Bob Hanson had been sheriff of Laskin County as long as I could remember. (In fact, he still is sheriff, which means he’s either doing a great job or nobody else wants it, I’m not sure which.) At that time in my life I’d never had any law-related encounters with him, but then at eleven, you just can’t get in that much trouble no matter how hard you try. Still, when I saw his car, I felt sure that my time had come, and I didn’t like it. Looking over at Sarah, I saw she felt the exact same way.
“Howdy, Sheriff,” I said, doing my best John Wayne.
“Howdy, Tom,” he said. “Your mom around?”
“She’s inside,” Sarah said, just as Mom walked out.
It was right then that I knew that Mom knew. She gave us a look that made my skin shrivel. Then she looked at the sheriff and smiled. “Why, Bob Hanson,” she said. “What brings you out this way?”
“Well, Jean, I’ve got a strange request to make of you. Got papers and all that, to make it legal, but I thought I’d come out first and talk to you about it. We want to dig up that rock pile on your land.”
“If you say so, Bob. But what on earth for?”
“Well, to be honest, your brother came in to the Norseman’s looking for me last night, and he had Gwen Davison’s purse with him. Said it was found out there in your rock pile yesterday.”
“Yes,” Mom said. “Warren told me about it last night. I told him he should bring it right in to you.” Sarah and I glanced at each other.
“Well, I appreciate it. I have to say, I didn’t think much about Gwen taking off. I mean, she’s done it before. So has Gus. But it does seem funny that a woman would leave town without her purse.”
“That’s what I thought,” Mom said.
The sheriff nodded. “Now, I’m not accusing anybody, and I’ll tell that to anybody, including Gus. But he says he’s got no idea where Gwen is, not that he much cares, and nobody’s heard from her in a month, so who knows where she is? And if her purse was out there, that’s a funny place for a purse, you betcha. So, we thought maybe there’s something else out there, too. So if you don’t mind…”
“Good God,” Mom said. “You mean -”
The sheriff shrugged. “Who knows? I just know I’ve got to check it out. With your permission, Jean.”
“Good God,” Mom repeated. “No, sure. Go ahead. Look all you want.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Can I help?” I asked.
“No,” Mom said firmly.
“Can I watch?” I persisted. “I won’t get in your way, Sheriff, and I’ll be real quiet, and I’ll stay out of everyone’s way, and I’ll --”
“Tom!” Mom snapped, and I shut up.
“That’s all right, Jean.” Sheriff Hanson looked down at me and smiled. “I can’t see any way to rope him off, and as long as he stays out of the way.”
“I will! I will!”
Mom sighed and gave in.
Half an hour later I was watching four men working hard. Uncle Warren was one of them, and he was the one who found the sheet and towels. They were all dirty, with dark rust-brown streaks all over them that made Sheriff Hanson shake his head.
“Boys, you’re gonna have to start digging,” he said. “I want this whole rock pile cleared off and see what’s under it.” He turned to me and said, “Tom, I think you’d best run on home and tell your Mom that we’re gonna be here a while.”
I was glad to go. I really didn’t want to see what else they were going to find. When I got to the house, I found Aunt Paula had arrived, along with Mrs. Nelson from the farm west of us, and Mrs. Sidwell, who showed up everywhere the police did by a homing instinct that I always believed came from her being part bloodhound. I told my news, and Mom turned white, Aunt Paula nodded as if she knew all about it, and Mrs. Nelson fainted.
“Well, this’ll put an end to Gus Davison and his carryings on,” Mrs. Sidwell said, waving a newspaper over Mrs. Nelson’s face.
“It’s a judgment on him,” Aunt Paula said.
“Get some water,” Mom snapped, and Sarah ran to the kitchen.
The rest of the day was sheer misery. Mom was too distracted to cook, Aunt Paula kept making Biblical pronouncements, and not even Pete felt like playing. We all sat and waited to hear what they would find. Sheriff Hanson roared by without stopping, heading towards town. One of the deputies came roaring back, heading towards the rock pile. Finally the other ladies left to go fix dinner for their families, and Mom fixed sandwiches for us. She didn’t eat a bite. It was almost dark when Uncle Warren finally came back to the house, dirty and sweaty and exhausted.
“Well?” Mom asked, without even mentioning his boots.
“Nothing,” Uncle Warren said, sitting down and yawning. “Is there anything cold to drink?”
“Sarah, get him some iced tea!” Mom ordered. “What do you mean, nothing?”
“I mean nothing. We cleaned out that rock pile, dug six foot down, and didn’t find anything. Thanks honey,” he said, taking the glass from Sarah. He drained it in one long swallow. “Get me another, would you? No, nothing. The purse and the other stuff had all been put in on the top.”
“Typical,” Mom said. “Too lazy to dig.” Uncle Warren shrugged. “The sheet, was it…”
“It was blood all right,” Uncle Warren said. He made a face and got up. “I’m going to go clean up. Any supper?”
“Sandwiches,” Mom replied. “Or I can fry you some eggs and bacon.”
“Sandwiches will do. I want to go into town later and see what the news is.”
The news was that Sheriff Hanson had arrested Gus Davison for the murder of Gwen Davison. The children were all taken down to the orphanage in Sioux Falls, where at least, as Mom said, they would be fed and clean and safe, which was more than they ever were at home. Just about everybody in Laskin felt that Gus had finally gotten his comeuppance, although the fact that the body hadn’t been found was bothersome. The general feeling was that it would turn up someplace, which gave me nightmares and brought an abrupt end to my career as an archeologist.
What really bothered people was the long wait until trial. It seemed an open and shut case to everyone, even without a body, and the idea of Gus sitting in jail (the judge refused bail, as if anyone would have supplied the money), eating his head off at taxpayer expense, didn’t sit well. In earlier times, it might have led to a late night break in and lynching, but this was Laskin, South Dakota, home of Norwegians, so everyone just grumbled their way through the long, hot August and waited for September.
Mom grumbled more than anyone, but that was mostly because, a couple of weeks after the arrest, Uncle Warren had left. He said he had an old army buddy up in Missoula who’d invited him to fish trout on the Bitterroot, and he wasn’t going to miss the chance. He promised he’d be back before harvest, but I could tell Mom wasn’t too confident. Montana had lured a lot of young men away from South Dakota. I’d have given my left arm to go with him, but instead I had to stay at home and do the chores. So I spent August grumbling along with everyone else.
September came, still hot, still dry, and finally Gus’ trial began. Everyone went to the trial, including us. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, both for the trial and Judge Paulson, who looked like a large, dignified Ulysses S. Grant, but had a voice as high-pitched as a chipmunk. As we packed into the pews, I could hardly wait to hear him say “Order in the court!” I just had to be sure not to giggle, or Mom would shoo me out.
Gus was sitting up front, next to his lawyer. He looked older than ever, and shrunk up on himself. The Judge spoke, I kept my laughter to myself, and the trial began.
Actually, trials are boring. Even murder trials. Lawyers don’t do half the things they do on TV, and they certainly never tell the judge what to do. Or at least they didn’t twenty years ago. When we came back after lunch, I started to nod off, full of the Mellette Lounge’s baked chicken, when there was a murmur in the court, followed by gasps and what for a bunch of Norwegians was a real commotion. I looked around, and gasped with the rest: walking into the courtroom was Gwen Davison.
She looked pretty good. She had a scar across her forehead that I didn’t remember, but she certainly wasn’t dead. She went up to the witness stand, took the oath, and sat down.
“Mrs. Davison,” said Judge Paulson, “do you realize that your husband is on trial for your murder?” His voice went up an extra octave at the word ‘murder’.
“I only found out about it last week,” Mrs. Davison replied, in a mild voice. “I was in Kansas City, and I ran into a friend who told me what was going on. Well, it took me a while to get the money for bus fare, but here I am.”
“Why didn’t you call anybody?” Judge Paulson asked.
“Why, I never thought of that. We’ve never had a telephone.” That was true.
“Mrs. Davison, in view of the situation, I have to ask you, what happened the night you left?”
“Well, Gus and I had a fight. And he struck me, knocked me out. You see I still have the scar.” She pointed to her forehead. “And when I came to, there was blood everywhere, Gus was gone, and I had a headache that would kill a cow. Well, I stopped the bleeding and cleaned things up. And then I thought, that’s the last time that son of a bitch does that to me.” Everyone gasped – profanity wasn’t used much in those days. “So I left.”
“And how did your things come to be at Olson farm?”
Mrs. Davison hesitated a bit. “I wanted to start a new life. So I walked across the farms and I saw the rock pile… It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Do you realize that those bloody rags were the main evidence against your husband?”
“But I put them there so that no one would suspect him!” Mrs. Davison replied. “I knew what people would think if I disappeared and there was blood all over our house. I thought I was protecting him.”
That was her argument, and she stuck to it. Gus Davison was released, of course. And there really weren’t any charges that could be filed against Gwen Davison. We drove home, stunned into silence, and found Uncle Warren sitting at the kitchen table, drinking buttermilk.
“Where on earth have you been?” Mom said. But she hugged him. We all hugged him, and we spent the evening talking about the trial, Montana, the crops, and the Davisons.
“The only question is how long until they get back together,” Mom said tartly.
“That’ll never happen,” Uncle Warren replied.
Mom snorted. “They’re two crabs in a bucket. Or haven’t you figured that out yet?” Uncle Warren was silent for a long time. Mom finally said, “Well, let’s all go to bed and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.”
We climbed upstairs, but Uncle Warren went into Mom’s room for a while. I hung around in the hall, thinking. I kept wondering how could Mrs. Davison have hoisted all those rocks by herself? In the dark? As hurt as she was? And it wasn’t as if she had the imagination to think of it…
Sarah’s door opened, and I popped into Uncle Warren’s room. There was his old backpack on the chair, maps sticking out of the side pocket. The top one said Kansas. And there was the fact that Uncle Warren was the one who’d given me that book on the Mound Builders…
Mom’s door opened, and Uncle Warren came out, saying, “I’ll take a look at that in the morning, Jean.”
He walked into the room and saw me, standing by the backpack.
“What is it, hoss?” he asked. He looked tired, and disappointed somehow.
Maybe he really had been in love with Mrs. Davison, back when she was young.
I said, “I just wanted to tell you I’m glad you’re back.” I gave him a big hug and said, “Good night.”

THE END