The Slider, Chapter 14: The Distinguished Service Cross

TOM SLIDER

Screeching tires, pedal-to-the-metal engine roar,  flying gravel.  The combo hit my ears hard.  “Ah-h!”  No time to even curse.  I was stuck at the stop sign before turning onto the highway, having checked on Tania’s schedule to find out when she’d be working next.  Pale blue car, late model whatever cookie cutter plastic computer in a box, left turn signal on, waiting for traffic to clear so she could leave the highway and head into McDonald land.  Offended at such an impertinent impediment to progress, the big pickup with its unbelievably long trailer roared past on her right, taking the shoulder, whizzing past in front of me, get outa my way kind of driver.  At least sixty miles per.

In a twenty-five zone.

He almost made it.  Almost.  Would have, except the trailer fishtailed just enough to play kissy-face-bang with a big, strong light pole.  Steel pole, not wood.  The truck was thrown off balance, swerved left, pulled the damaged trailer too far back the other way, into the little blue car’s passenger door.  Dust, rubber, sheet metal and glass flew, not a movie special effects explosion but the next best thing.  The trailer’s license plate ripped free and went spiraling past my windshield, red-white-blue.  Idaho plate.

I sort of lost track of things for a moment, distracted by various vehicle parts zinging my way like shrapnel from a mortar.  Plus, the zig-whipping trailer blocked much of my view.

Quickly enough, though, several details became clear.  The little blue car had been spun clear around.  It now faced back toward the Rez.  Its driver was in her seat, belted in nicely but knocked cold as a mackerel–or worse–by the airbag.  Man, I hate those things.  Her ash-blonde hairdo slumped forward, the rest of her body held in place by the shoulder strap.  The offending driver’s dually Ford truck was still moving, still on its wheels, and not interested in waiting for the cops.  Instead of slowing or stopping, it accelerated, dragging the dinged trailer, ignoring the flat tire.  That trailer had six wheels; he might be able to drag the beast some distance.

But he’d leave a trail, and his trailer had shed that license plate.

I was out of my Dodge before I knew it, flying across the intervening pavement, grabbing the  driver side door handle.  It wasn’t locked, thanks be.  I leaned in over the deflated airbag  in front of her slumped body, found the key, turned off the ignition.  Left the key there.

Now what?  If I pulled her out and she had a spinal injury, all sorts of bad things could happen.  Including me getting sued.  Save the world.  Kill all the lawyers.  Wouldn’t have been a question in my Navy days.  Nobody sicced lawyers on you for trying to save a life back then.

The attack trailer had really clobbered her car on the far side.  I smelled gas and…hot oil, burnt rubber.  All three.  Not good.  Somebody must have called 911 by this time.  When I took a quick look, I could see security guys running toward us from the casino.  They’d likely be here in thirty seconds or so.  Thirty seconds was too long.  I didn’t want to end up standing in front of my Maker, explaining, “Well, you see, your Divinity, I decided to stand outside the car, sucking my thumb, sort of like the cowardly deputies in Florida who stayed outside the school and listened while the shooter murdered student after student.”

My hesitation lasted no more than maybe a tenth of a second.  Act now, worry later.  I unbuckled her belt.  Felt the cervical area, just a quick probe for anything obviously out of place.  Nothing.  She looked to be fifty, give or take.  Scaly skin.  Thin blood trail down from her right nostril.  I half-squatted, leaned forward, picked her up out of there.  She wasn’t a small woman but thankfully not fat, either.  150 pounds, give or take.  Enough to tweak my back.   The woman had bad breath and noticeably rotten teeth.  Hair spray made her hair stiff and nose-prickly.  Carrying her in my arms, I walked quickly but carefully, oh so carefully, away from the vehicle.

One of the security guys started  yelling at me for moving her.  I ignored him.  If this turned out to be his mother or wife, I’d apologize someday.  “Get a backboard!”  I snapped.  “Leaving her there was not an option but I’m not shifting her again until we’ve got the right stuff and somebody who knows how to use it.”

Yell-at-me Man scowled.  Broad, fierce, black-eyed face.  Clearly Native and irritated, wasn’t going to take guff from a stupid white–“Yow!”

He did.  He really did go “Yow!” in surprise.  Part of the car was now burning, a –whoof!- followed by sooty flames licking up from under the hood.  Not a full blown inferno, not yet, no Hollywood extravaganza Stallone boom-boom, but enough that Yow Man quit yelling at me and pulled a radio from his belt.  Barked something into it.

It seemed like hours till the ambulance got there.  Couldn’t have been more than five, ten minutes, but time is subjective, right?  I explained to the EMTs why I was still holding her, why I’d felt I had to move her but didn’t dare move her twice or even set her down until professional help arrived.  My back was killing me.

By the time they got her on the gurney, she was coming around.  Whopper headache.  Confused.  Disoriented.  But able to talk a little, able to move head, fingers, toes.

Three cop cars in attendance. I remembered the trajectory, wandered off, searched on the other side of my truck, came up with the license plate.  Handed it to a BIA cop whose name tag identified him as Captain Junaway.  Bet he got called Junie behind his back, but I wasn’t going there.  Gave him a clear and concise statement.   Worked up a sketch of the accident, pinning down direction of travel and whirligig maneuvers of the offending trailer,  estimating speed, the works.  Emphasized the fact that Mr. Hit-and-Run was flooring it on the way out.  There hadn’t been any other vehicles at the intersection when it happened.  Looked like I might be the only eyewitness.

Whoopee.

The lady’s blue car was toast, crumpled and burned.  Fire had reached the upholstery before several guys with fire extinguishers went to work.  The ambulance was taking her in for observation but it looked to me like she’d probably be okay.  Her car wouldn’t.

When they were done with me–for now, as I figured I’d be testifying at the guy’s trial someday–I decided to get turned around, head back into the casino,  and treat myself to a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.  Reward for good behavior and a chance to rest my strained back muscles.  I glanced at my watch.  Tania would be coming to work in another hour.

Best of all, right then and there, I was easing down into that super mellow that comes with survival, good deeds under extreme circumstances, and the occasional, invisible pat on one’s own back.  My driver’s door had a gouge in it where a flying piece of something had hit it.  I’d taken pictures of everything and, if I knew the police, my photos would end up outclassing theirs in the courtroom by a country mile.  I wasn’t even sure they’d taken any.  Plenty of rubber neckers snapping pics with their smart phones.  Probably show up on social media.

Yep, feeling good, especially since that flying door-gouger could have been a little higher and taken my fool head off, but hadn’t.  I was jazzed, high in the way only danger survived can get you stoned.  100% natural high, flying like I hadn’t flown since outwitting my kids when they tried to get me committed.  Who needs skydiving?

Best of all, Montana blondie Lanie Delaney hadn’t even crossed my mind during the whole scene.  Even now, when I realized that, she still didn’t seem all that important.

It occurred to me that despite my essential whiteness I had just elevated myself to Pillar of the Community,  Rez-wise.  The ash-blonde lady with the scaly skin got her do out of a bottle.  Beneath the hair, she’d looked at least half Native.  Her chosen hair dye didn’t do her any favors; most Indians knew better than to go blonde.  Local license plate.  There was always a possibility the Idaho hit and run driver might prove to be a threat, even here in South Dakota.  I was not in the habit of ignoring such possibilities.  But that was for the future, and besides, I already practiced watching my back.  Had it down to a fine art.

Most of the time.  Reckless encounters with hot young blondes excepted, of course.  The wreck had at least given me something other than Lanie Delaney to think about.

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DELANEY-ODELA HOME

Karen Odela fingered the curvy little vase one last time before replacing it on their family room shelf and returning to the couch.  She curled up at one end, facing Lanie at the other.  “So tell me more about this good looking, macho guy who makes girly pottery.”

“I prefer to think of it as sensual rather than girly.”

“Yeah, and you’re interested in this Tom Slider the mad potter, too.   Who lives umpteen miles away, not even in Montana, and is more than twice our ages.”

“Not more than twice if we add our ages together.”  Big grin.  Lanie wasn’t about to take offense.  She could tell Karen was interested.   “He’s a fantasy fellow anyway.  Probably married with eighteen kids.  Bet you’d take one look at him and go, oh, Daddy, spank me, too!”

“Hah!  Nuh-uh!”  Karen did like to be spanked a little and neither of them would turn down the right older man, but these women were realists.  The odds of finding a Mr. Right of any age were worse than trying to win sixty-seven million bucks at Powerball on a one-ticket purchase.

“So, sweetcakes, what kind of sneaky stuff did you get up to while I was gone to South Dakota with ol’ Kermit?”

“Huh.  Mostly I got bored.  Did get three new counseling clients and I might even be helping one of them, but the house was way too empty with you absent.  ‘Bout drove me nuts.  In the end, believe it or not, I ended up at the local library.  No big goal, just stumbling around.  Finally asked the librarian if they had anything about old John Cavanaugh.  Richest guy in the area, lived here a whole long time, seemed like there ought to be something.  Turns out the library has a whole John Cavanaugh section.”

“Say what?”  Lanie sat her glass mug of sun tea back down on the coffee table, poured in an inch or so of sugar-chamomile mix so thick it was syrupy, tasted the result, and smacked her lips in satisfaction.

“You and your sugar. A whole section.  Newspaper and magazine articles mostly.   Did you know he made the cover of Time once and the cover of Forbes four times?”

Lanie’s ears perked up.  “Any biographies?”

“No less than three, all  unauthorized.  John C. apparently wasn’t much for talking about himself.”

“So…he was not only rich, he was famous?”

“In certain circles, I guess.  Or at least well known.   I’ve still got one book checked out.”  She reached down, picked up a slim volume from the coffee table.  Hardcover, dull green, like new condition.  Pert residents apparently weren’t much into biographies unless your name was Michael Jackson.  Karen had a place bookmarked.  “We knew he was a World War II vet, right?”

“Right.”  Lanie was mildly curious now.  Karen wasn’t usually a reader of biographies, either.

“Well, it turns out he earned a slew of medals while he was in service.  You know my granddad got a Bronze Star when he was in Vietnam?”

“Sure.”  George Odela’s widow had told them at the reception after her husband’s funeral, shown them the medal she kept in a leather case. “Major valor.”

“Major.  Okay, so it turns out there are even higher medals you can earn.  A couple apply to fliers only, but in the Navy…okay, here it is.  In the Navy, you go from Bronze Star up to Silver Star, even higher to the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, then finally to the one most of us have heard of, the Medal of Honor. ”

“Okay.”

“Along with all his other, I guess you could say less spectacular medals, John Cavanaugh received a Silver Star and a Distinguished Service Cross.  He never received a Medal of Honor,  but guess what?  Only 3,549 of those have been passed out since the medal was created in 1862.”

“Double wow.”  Karen had her attention now.  Play-talk about the safely distant Tom Slider was blown clean out her mind for the moment.

“Yeah.  Double wow.  Not only that, honey, but both of those medals–Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross–are given for hot-stuff behavior during combat.  That’s the way I read it, anyway.  This stupid book doesn’t give the actual wordings of his citations, so I don’t know exactly what he did, but the Silver Star is for Gallantry in Action Against an Opposing Armed Force and the Distinguished Service Cross is for Extraordinary Heroism in Connection with Military Operations Against an Opposing Armed Force.  He obviously wasn’t just standing on his head in a corner of his ship, stacking BBs with his ears.”

Karen passed the book over to Lanie.  No wonder it was a slim volume.  It was titled The Military Service of John Cavanaugh, covered nothing but his years in the Navy, and didn’t even list the precise citation wordings?  Lazy author.  Where Karen had placed the bookmark, there was a photograph of the young sailor and the senior officer–whoever that might have been–who was pinning the medal on the ramrod-erect recipient.  Black and white picture, clearly taken by a Navy photographer, probably part of a press release.  Good looking man, serious, composed.  Competent, she thought.  That John Cavanaugh just reeks of competence.

“I don’t get it,” she said at last, passing the book back to her lover.  “Handsome, responsible young father survives the war with honor, comes home to his family, builds a solid future for one and all.  Even Kermit has admitted to me that his father was a good dad when he was home and a great provider.  So what went wrong there with the family?”

“Ah, ’tis a mystery, my lady, and  one we’ll not be likely to solve this evening.  But hark!  The herald oven dinger rings.  Time to get the roast out of the oven.”